Dr. Jessica Duncan Cance on Texas Health Data

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By Susan Kirtz, MPH
Managing Editor, Texas Health Journal
Director of Special Projects, Center for Health Communication
The University of Texas at Austin


Dr. Jessica Duncan Cance is the Agency Analytics Manager in the Center for Health Statistics at the Texas Department of State Health Services. Immediately prior to her current position, she served as the Interim Prevention Lead for the Texas Targeted Opioid Response project at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC). Dr. Cance joined HHSC in 2016 after working six years as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Cance has nearly 20 years of experience working in adolescent and young adult health promotion, including epidemiological research, program implementation, coalition building, and national evaluation projects.


In her current role, Jessica oversees the analysis and dissemination of health information available at the Texas Department of State Health Services and other Texas agencies. Her unit includes research epidemiologists, geospatial analysts, and data visualization specialists. The Agency Analytics Unit is responsible for managing the Texas Health Data (THD) website. The purpose of THD is to enable data-informed strategic planning, implementation, and evaluation of services throughout Texas and to aid in research and policy development. Each page of THD, designed using the software program Tableau, is a “dashboard” and consists of multiple sources of information related to the topic. THD includes public data and statistics on various public health topics based on datasets housed within the Texas Department of State Health Services and other state agencies. In addition to state-level summary reports, users can query the datasets to obtain statistics among demographic and geographic groups of interest.

Dr. Cance is currently leading the expansion of Texas Health Data to include more data on opioid misuse and associated consequences through the support of a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One example of this work is an ongoing partnership with the Texas Board of Pharmacy to publish prescription dispensing data from the Texas Prescription Monitoring Program.

You and your team have been working hard to visualize Texas Health Data. What are some best practices that you’ve utilized to effectively present a large amount of data for use by diverse audiences?

You can’t forget that the first step in presenting data is understanding why the data are important. This involves having conversations with the teams that are responsible for collecting and reporting the data, as well as the stakeholders who use the data. It is my job to make sure that data gets back to the communities who can harness that power to improve their health and well-being.

While I consider myself a public health data expert, the art of data visualization comes from my team! I am lucky enough to be surrounded by a team of highly skilled analysts with significant experience in how to visually present the story in the data.

What would you say are some of the most pressing gaps in Texas health data?

Due to the geographic and demographic diversity of Texas, it is critical to present data with as much granularity as possible while maintaining confidentiality. Currently, most of the data on Texas Health Data are presented at the county level, even in the counties with large metropolitan areas. Also, as of right now, Texas Health Data is primarily designed for an audience with beginner to intermediate epidemiological skills rather than the general public. Lastly, while the amount of data on Texas Health Data is vast, there are still a number of datasets from within the agency and other state agencies that are not included on the website.

What are your top 5 tips for using data to tell a compelling story about health?

  1. Know the story you want to tell about your data.

  2. Know your audience. While the story may be the same, the delivery will change depending on who you are trying to reach.

  3. Keep it simple. Often we are tempted as epidemiologists to share all of the data in all possible combinations. The risk is that you “can’t see the forest for the trees.”

  4. Ask for feedback. From everyone. There is no perfect way to tell the story and you probably won’t get it right the first time.

  5. Remember that even if they don’t like numbers, everyone likes data!