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Informing Policy. Advancing Health.

7 Billion and Counting...

November 4, 2011

A friend asked me last week, “So how is the World Health Organization going to find the seven billionth person?”  I asked her to clarify.  “Who is it going to be?” she responded. “You know, identifying who exactly is the seven billionth.”

When the world’s population topped six billion in 1999 (not that long ago), a symbolic gesture was made and a newborn in Sarajevo was welcomed as the sixth billionth person on the planet by then United Nations  Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Perhaps something like this will happen again. The volume of births and population growth point to a newborn in India.

But my friend’s question was not a naïve one.  She is college- educated and trained with a master’s degree. Her question reveals an issue that we contend with at CHI on a daily basis . . . what we have come to call the data paradox.  It goes something like this.  As data become more abundant and available, we assume a certain precision accompanies that information.  We expect a level of accuracy where we could, for example, name the seventh billionth person on the planet. Or at least quantify the number of kids qualifying for Medicaid in Colorado or the exact need for rural health providers.

But data, nearly by definition, captures a moment in time.  A snapshot.  Directionally correct?  You bet.  Pinpoint accuracy? That’s more elusive.  And this paradox can be frustrating.  Just ask my colleagues.

CHI is a research and policy institute founded on the basic idea that better data leads to better decisions regarding policy, legislation and implementation. We stand by that idea.  And we strive to provide the best analysis, most timely data and most relevant research in the state.  We are, in essence, improving our data accuracy day in and day out.  Yet there are always constraints, always challenges and always assumptions inherent in data-based research.

As we work with health care leaders across the state, we stress that it’s important, when analyzing data, to:

  • Look for changes and trends over time from the same surveys and data sets that employ the same methodologies. Year- over- year trends from one data source are valuable.
  • Use data wisely and know the assumptions, constraints and strengths of particular data sources.  Often, your strategic goal will point you toward an appropriate methodology and data source.
  • Make sure you don’t let data stand in your way.  Often we become so fixated on “what number is right” that we lose sight of the policy needs.  If the uninsured rate is 15% as opposed to 17%, does that change the need for basic health care access and coverage?  Will our policies or perspectives change?  Most of the time, the answer is negative – our work to improve access, care and overall health still addresses a great need.

The ideal, of course, is to have pinpoint accuracy.  But the moment we do, the market will have changed, another baby will have been born. Perhaps when we celebrate the eighth billionth newborn arrival (expected in 2025), we will be able to identify that one baby.  But whether that baby will be in China or Africa or somewhere else is less important than grappling with the global strategic issues of population growth and sustainability.  And that’s the lesson of the data paradox.