Tom Frieden: Data Wonk

I love data. Is there anything more fulfilling than a deep dive into numbers? Following the trends, thinking about what we can do better, seeing where we’ve done a great job – it’s so satisfying.

Yes, I admit it. Proudly. I am a data wonk. 

I’m always eager to get my hands on new data, and nothing frustrates me more than having to wait. Last year, my staff was looking at new data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. It was the first time we were reporting data that included cell phone only households. I asked many people to send me the data for a sneak peek, but, sigh, no one would give it up.

One of my favorite parts of the job as director of CDC is my monthly “Conversation with the Director” where I meet one-on-one with CDC staff. For years I’ve been citing a scientist’s data on heart disease deaths since 1980. When I found out he was a CDC employee, I couldn’t wait to sit down and go over his analyses. That’s my idea of a great way to spend an hour. 

As America’s health protection agency, CDC has a unique role as both a data collector and a data generator, identifying national health trends and reporting on interventions. 

Data help us report on success stories such as these examples of progress we made in protecting Americans’ health in 2013:

  • We saw a 32 percent decrease in overall bloodstream infections and a 54 percent decrease in vascular access-related bloodstream infections because of CDC 2013 prevention guidelines;
  • More than 100,000 Americans quit smoking because of CDC’s Tips From Former Smokers national ad campaign; and
  • We, along with our partners, achieved the milestone of preventing HIV infection in 1 million babies around the world over the past 10 years.

Identifying national health trends helps us identify new problems and areas that need more work. The trends we’re seeing in prescription drug overdose, obesity and autism, for example, are focusing our work in those areas.

Our collecting and reporting data supports the crucial participation of state and local health departments, because all data is in some way local.

We believe wholeheartedly that openness of data is inspiring entrepreneurship and innovation, fueling the ideas of creative individuals and organizations. We expect the information will drive policy development, system and environmental changes to improve health.

Here are two examples of how we’re providing open access to more of our data and information:

  • Sortable Stats is an interactive data set of behavioral risk factors and health indicators compiled for the 50 states, DC, and U.S. territories from various published CDC and federal sources.  The data is presented in a format that allows users to view, sort, and analyze data at state, regional, and national levels.  Yes, I suggested it and we patterned it after baseball statistics (of course, baseball is also a data wonk’s dream).
  • hosts some of the CDC’s most popular data sets. In addition to increased access to data, is powered by the Socrata platform that allows users to filter syndicate and create easy visualizations with the data.

We believe CDC is in a unique position to help systematically improve the ways we increase the health security of our nation and protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and in the U.S. It’s a passion that makes us feel fortunate to do the work we do.