Intended for healthcare professionals


Visualising health inequalities

BMJ 2019; 367 doi: (Published 15 October 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l5976
  1. Will Stahl-Timmins, data visualisation designer1,
  2. John Appleby, director of research and chief economist2
  1. 1The BMJ, London, UK
  2. 2Nuffield Trust, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to: W Stahl-Timmins Wstahl-timmins{at}

Announcing a new data visualisation competition in healthcare

Given the ubiquity of data in our lives it is perhaps unsurprising that methods to help us understand this rising tide of digits have become increasingly popular.12 Techniques such as bar and line charts have helped us to see patterns in numerical data since at least the late 18th century.3 However, the digital revolution has boosted the possibilities for visualising data, and there is now a thriving field of practice and research in “data visualisation.”

Visualisation transforms data into vibrant, often interactive, pieces that allow viewers to explore and interact with data in new ways. Infographics are related but subtly different, blending data visualisations, illustrations, and images with text to enable visual storytelling. The BMJ has been exploring these possibilities for the past five years, the results of which can be seen at

Most news providers now have dedicated teams for making infographics and data visualisations. For anyone interested in developing skills in data storytelling, there are courses, handbooks, societies, and conferences to help (box 1). For those that have already achieved a level of proficiency, there are several competitions to showcase their talents.

Box 1

Getting started in data visualisation



  • Kirk A. Data Visualisation: A Handbook for Data Driven Design. 2nd ed. Sage, 2019

  • Cairo A. The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization. New Riders, 2012.



Competition for healthcare

The newest of these competitions has now opened for submissions. A collaboration between The BMJ, Nuffield Trust, and NHS Digital, it invites contributors to create data visualisations of routine NHS data, exploring the theme of inequalities. The dataset provided includes measures of quality of life, health outcomes, and sociodemographic structures of different communities in England. All four organisations are keen to provide a platform to harness the creativity of data visualisation specialists to help understand complex data about health inequalities.

Why does the world need another data visualisation competition? The annual Malofiej infographics competition ( has recognised visuals published in newspapers and magazines for over 25 years. The Information is Beautiful Awards, now in their eighth year (, showcase the ingenuity of data visualisation practitioners each year. They also run data visualisation “challenges” with particular datasets.

This new competition follows the lead of similar “data challenges” but with two key differences. Firstly, the competition asks for only hand drawn sketches in the first round, acknowledging that producing finished data visualisations takes substantial time and effort. The information designer Valentina D’Efillipo recently argued that the sketch is a fundamental tool for developing and presenting ideas in data visualisation.4 It allows ideas to flow from the mind of a designer quickly and efficiently onto the page. It is where almost all infographics produced by The BMJ start. And for this competition, it is where the winning contributions will start their journeys.

Another important difference is that the judging panel will be evenly divided between experts in data visualisation and in health inequalities. Existing competitions are filled with beautiful works of art based on intriguing data sources that often fail to communicate information that can influence behaviour or provide insight. Conversely, data visualisations produced by health practitioners can be limited in scope because they lack the funds to employ design and communication professionals. By including judges with knowledge of both domain and methods, the competition organisers hope to encourage submissions that are both visually compelling and reveal strong and important stories within the data.

The new competition continues a fine tradition of innovation in the visual presentation of health and care data. Florence Nightingale is remembered for her work as a nurse, but she was also an accomplished data journalist. Her coxcomb diagrams illustrating causes of death among soldiers fighting in the Crimean war are recognised as an early classic of data visualisaton.5

Nightingale would be amazed at the scale and scope—and the possibilities—of the health and care data we now have at our fingertips. But it is only comparatively recently that we have begun to appreciate the huge potential value—to patients, clinicians, planners, and policy makers—of the data and information generated by the NHS. NHS Digital currently holds around 1600 datasets open to the public, containing many billions of data points. Visualising these data is one way to explore and characterise persisting variation in the use of healthcare and associated outcomes.

Entries are invited from data visualisation practitioners, whether professional, amateur, or in training. Further details about the competition, and the dataset provided by NHS Digital, can be accessed from the competition page at: The deadline for entries is 31 December 2019. We look forward to seeing the combined creativity of the data visualisation and health communities brought together for this competition.


  • This article has been updated to include details of the new edition of Data Visualisation: A Handbook for Data Driven Design by Andy Kirk.

  • Competing interests: We have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.


View Abstract