Meet the Dashboard: Dr. Jessica Athens, Director of Metrics and Analytics

Nov. 14, 2018

Samantha Breslin & Miriam Gofine

We are excited to introduce Dr. Jessica Athens, Director of Metrics and Analytics of the City Health Dashboard. Dr. Athens is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Population Health at the NYU School of Medicine. Her efforts on the City Health Dashboard build upon two previous projects, including the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, which she helped launch while at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, and the New York Community Health Atlas—a proof-of-concept interactive web atlas that displays health care utilization and health outcomes by census tract, ZIP code, and community district for New York City.

CHDB: You’ve been involved with the Dashboard since its inception back in 2015 – first directing the pilot and now as the Director of Metrics and Analytics. What was working on the pilot like? How have your priorities and vision for the Dashboard changed over time?

JA: The pilot was a very intense effort, with limited staff, and our areas of focus were (1) making sure the measures we selected were meaningful to our pilot cities—which were all quite different, (2) finding accessible and valid data for those measures, and (3) creating a functional and appealing proof-of-concept web site in a short time.

Moving toward the scaled version, some of these issues were the same, such as: Are data available for all our cities, are better measures possible? More interestingly, we moved from the question of “Can we even do a dashboard?” to “How well can we do it?”

CHDB: Y__ou live in New York City. How do your experiences living and working in a large, densely populated city affect your professional interests?

JA: It has made me want to take up farming! My degree is from University of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin is my home state. I’ve had the opportunity to live in other large cities (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Pune, India), and the bustle of those places reminds me of New York. What I find most fascinating about New York City is its extreme diversity packed into a small space, relatively speaking. It makes me think deeply about the stark inequities that are present in the city and how city leadership can help maximize access to resources and opportunities for all residents, not just the wealthy.

CHDB: In addition to your PhD in Population Health Sciences, you have a Master’s in Urban Planning, and much of your research is based on the health impacts of the built environment. How did you get interested in the intersection of health and the built environment, and how do you see the Dashboard adding to the discourse on that topic?

JA: The history of public health and the history of urban planning are deeply intertwined – one may say they are actually the same thing. (In fact, I gave a lecture to students in my Population Health Selective on this very topic!)

Identifying the spatial distribution of health-related risk factors and health outcomes is key to targeting interventions. In particular, our maps of these measures really highlight the importance of place- and context-specific interventions to improve health.

CHDB: Thinking more broadly than just the Dashboard, how do you view the role and accessibility of data in shaping the discourse around social change? What part does data have to play? And how might that change in the future?

JA: Data availability itself is not sufficient to inspire social change, mostly because making data available does not necessarily make it accessible. Data presented transparently and in context, however, can motivate communities and spur collective action.

By ‘transparent’ I mean that the story the data tells (and doesn’t tell) is made clear—what are the assumptions, the potential biases in the data? What conclusions can we make based on the information at hand? There’s a huge risk to misrepresenting data or overstating findings, which we see in the news media regularly.

Here’s an example of what I mean by ‘context’: If I told you there were 5 deaths in a community due to colon cancer in the last year, how would you know if that’s good or bad? Knowing the context—i.e., how many people lived in the community, how many people died from colon cancer in previous years, and what colon cancer mortality is in other communities—would help you make that assessment.

The proliferation of data over the past decade or so has prompted a lot of analysis that fails to be systematic, transparent, and contextualized, which can lead to false narratives. But there’s also a growing acknowledgement about the importance of knowing your data and its limitations. I expect the interactivity and flexibility of data tools will continue to expand, so community members can better engage with information about where they live. If done well and responsibly, this can have a huge impact on community engagement and mobilization.

CHDB: After almost 6 years at NYU, you are moving on to your next chapter. While we’re sad to see you go, we’re very excited for you. What’s up next? What is one lesson from the Dashboard that you’ll bring to your next job?

JA: It’s been a remarkable journey at NYU, and I truly love my colleagues and the work of the department. Thankfully, I’m not moving too far afield! In December I’ll be joining the New York State Health Foundation as Policy and Research Officer in their new Policy and Research Department. It’s a great organization and I have long been interested in philanthropic work, so I’m excited for the future.

One lesson from the Dashboard? There are too many! But I will say I think it’s so important to know your audience and their barriers to engaging in public health improvement. It’s crucial to understand how things are on the ground, in order to develop tools that are useful.

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