Information is Beautiful. Visualizing the Evidence for Health Supplements.

21 03 2010

In a world driven by data, we need a simple means of digesting it all. Visualization of data may help to coop with the information overload. Good visualizations enable people to look at vast quantities of data quickly.

Bram Hengeveld at Geriatric Care (geriatricare.wordpress.com) told me of Snake Oil, a fantastic visualization of scientific evidence for popular health supplements. A well chosen name too, because Snake oil  is both a traditional Chinese medicine, as a  term for “medicines” that are fake, fraudulent, quackish, or ineffective. The expression is also applied metaphorically to any product with exaggerated marketing but questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit. (Wikipedia).

Snake oil is just one visualization at Information is Beautiful (link), the site created by David McCandless, a London-based author, writer and designer who wrote for The Guardian, Wired and others, and nowadays an independent data journalist and information designer. His passion: visualizing information – facts, data, ideas, subjects, issues, statistics, questions – all with the minimum of words (see about).

When you see snake oil you intuitively understand it all.

The image is a “balloon race”. The larger the bubble the higher its popularity in terms of number of Google hits. Orange bubbles look promising but have (yet) a low evidence.

The higher a bubble, the greater the evidence for its effectiveness. But the supplements are only effective for the conditions listed inside the bubble. Evidence is only shown for supplements, taken orally by an adult with a healthy diet.

Some supplements may be represented by multiple bubbles, one for each condition:  after all, the evidence may vary across conditions. For example, there’s strong evidence that Green Tea is good for cholesterol levels. But evidence for its anti-cancer effects is conflicting.

Another nice thing about Snake oil is that it is interactive. You can show (filter) the results for specific conditions or supplement types. Below I selected cardio. Most bubbles disappear. The evidence seems strong for green tea, fish oil and red yeast rice and low for vitamin E and omega-3. When you move your mouse over a bubble it pops up and you can read the supplements name and the condition to which the evidence applies.

Truly amazing.

One might ask how GOOD are the data on which these bubbles are based?

Well I haven’t checked, but the visualization generates itself from this Google Doc. The Google spread sheet shows all the data on which the visualization is based. These can be PubMed Records, Cochrane Systematic Reviews, Medline Plus or a full text paper. The image is automatically regenerated when the google doc is updated with new research that has come out.

The only thing that strikes me as a information specialists is that the way the evidence is retrieved is not stated. Probably this isn’t done in an evidence based way, because each piece of evidence is based on ONE article only. The choice of the paper seems rather random. And some supplements are rather vague. What is meant with “anti-oxidants?” Many of the supplements have anti-oxidant activity for instance.

But the idea in itself is great. Suppose we could gather the evidence in a more evidence based way, share it in Google Docs, appraise it and visualize it. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

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4 responses

23 03 2010
Bram Hengeveld

That would be truly wonderful indeed. Right now, I personally wouldn’t advise to use the suppl. balloon race as a good overview of available evidence. They hint a bit at the way they found the research in the accompanying text:

“We only considered large, human, randomized placebo-controlled trials in our data scrape – wherever possible. No animal trials. No cell studies. Many of the health claims made by the $23 billion supplements industry are based on non-human trials. We wanted to cut through that.

This piece was doggedly researched by myself, and researchers Pearl Doughty-White and Alexia Wdowski. We looked at the abstracts of over 1500 studies on PubMed (run by US National Library Of Medicine) and Cochrane.org (which hosts meta-studies of scientific research). It took us several months to seek out the evidence – or lack of.”

That’s quite a lot of abstracts of course, but I believe – tiny me – that’s not enough. Nevertheless: McCandless would be my instant-hero if he made the code for the visual available in the open source community.

And thanks for mentioning my blog (though not interesting to non-Dutch readers), but it’s actually called ‘Ars GeriatriCare’ ;)

28 03 2010
epicsystems

Dear Sir,

I have the pleasure to brief on our Data Visualization software
“Trend Compass”.

TC is a new concept in viewing statistics and trends in an animated
way by displaying 5 axis (X, Y, Time, Bubble size & Bubble color)
instead of just the traditional X and Y axis. It could be used in
analysis, research, presentation etc. In the banking sector, we have
Deutsche Bank New York as our client.

This a link [removed link] on weather data :

epicsyst.com/test/v2/aims/

This is a bank link to compare Deposits, Withdrawals and numbers of
Customers for different branches over time ( all in 1 Chart) :

epicsyst.com/test/v2/bank-trx/

Misc Examples :

epicsyst.com/test/v2/airline/
epicsyst.com/test/v2/stockmarket1/
epicsyst.com/test/v2/tax/
epicsyst.com/test/v2/football/
epicsyst.com/test/v2/swinefludaily/
epicsyst.com/test/v2/flu/
epicsyst.com/test/v2/babyboomers/
epicsyst.com/test/v2/bank-trx/
epicsyst.com/test/v2/advertising/

This is a project we did with Princeton University on US unemployment :
epicsyst.com/main3.swf

A 3 minutes video presentation of above by Professor Alan Krueger
Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton
University and currently Chief Economist at the US Treasury using
Trend Compass :
http://epicsyst.com/trendcompass/princeton.aspx?home=1

Latest financial links on the Central Bank of Egypt:
[removed]

I hope you could evaluate it and give me your comments. So many ideas
are there.

You can download a trial version. It has a feature to export
EXE,PPS,HTML and AVI files. The most impressive is the AVI since you
can record Audio/Video for the charts you create.

http://epicsyst.com/trendcompass/FreeVersion/TrendCompassv1.2_DotNet.zip

All the best.

Epic Systems
[removed]

14 04 2010
Steve

Thanks for this informative post about health supplements. The graphics are awesome! Being able to “see snake oil . . . intuitively” made it easy for me to understand which supplements might be more valuable to our health than others. I was surprised to see Vitamin “E” as having only “Slight” evidence of being beneficial to human health; that is, high in popularity yet low in terms of health benefits. I work for sportaid [link removed] where this type of graphical representation might be of value in showing our high ratings for customer satisfaction. Thanks again!

17 04 2010
Silly Saturday #22 – A Picture is Worth a 1000 Words. « Laika’s MedLibLog

[...] a ral fan of Information is Beautiful with its beautiful visualizations. See previous post on evidence for health [...]

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