The Joyce Foundation -
Building Data Dashboards for State Departments of Health

Effective violence prevention efforts require detailed and accurate data on the nature and dynamics of violent deaths, and for this data to be easily accessible. Violent Death Reporting Systems (VDRS) are the primary source for this data. Each state has a VDRS program, usually housed within the Department of Health, which collects comprehensive data on all violent deaths. As part of their commitment to violence prevention, the Joyce Foundation (Joyce) supports VDRS programs in the Great Lakes region.

Designing a first-of-its-kind tool

In 2020, Joyce hired Understory to assess the needs of VDRS programs in the region. This engagement identified the need for improved data dissemination, to make VDRS data more accessible to policymakers, researchers, and other community members. Supported by a Joyce grant, Understory partnered with state VDRS programs in Michigan and Minnesota to design dashboards that visualize VDRS data in an intuitive, easy-to-use way.

Prior to this project, no state had a dashboard that comprehensively visualized data on violent deaths. So, while VDRS programs held a treasure trove of valuable data, this data was relatively inaccessible to policymakers and the public.

Understory proposed to Joyce the idea of piloting VDRS dashboards with Michigan and Minnesota. Working in collaboration with senior VDRS staff in each state, Understory identified over 100 data fields for inclusion in the dashboards, capturing manner of death, victim demographics, weapon used, mental health history, toxicology, and other circumstances related to each violent death.

Understory proceeded to clean the VDRS data to ensure consistency, and then began to build a dashboard to visualize the data. Built in Tableau, the dashboard shows the overall trends in the number and rate of violent deaths, and then allows the user to zoom in on specific types of violent death (including suicides, homicides, firearm deaths, intimate partner violence homicides, and child deaths). All of this data is disaggregated by the victims’ demographic attributes (including sex, race, ethnicity, and age), allowing users to observe disparities in the impacts of violent death.

Providing a model for other states and the CDC 

Working with Joyce and our VDRS partners, Understory finalized the Michigan and Minnesota dashboards and readied them for launch. This involved incorporating feedback from Department of Health staff, and ensuring that the dashboards were compliant with state accessibility guidelines.  

In the lead-up to the dashboards’ launch, there has been significant interest in replicating the model from other funders, other state VDRS programs, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC, which houses the national VDRS program).  

Understory presented the dashboard work at the Safe States Alliance annual conference, which brings together violence prevention researchers and practitioners from around the country. Along with Joyce and Minnesota Department of Health staff, Understory also presented the Minnesota dashboard to the CDC. As the designers of these original VDRS dashboards, Understory is in conversation with other states, funders, and the CDC about expanding the concept.