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Florence Nightingale Isn’t Who You Thought She Was

Updated: Jun 10

You know the iconic image of Florence Nightingale, the British nurse, wandering through the night with a lamp to tend to the dying soldiers of the Crimean war.

​She is responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives - but not from providing one-to-one nursing care. Her broadest impact came from - wait for it - being a data analyst. Her work led to a long lasting legacy in healthcare to value data as a way to make better decisions and get better outcomes.

Her biggest impact came not from nursing but - wait for it - from data analysis

As a nursing administrator she visited the frontlines and British army hospitals and barracks and recognised that a change in practice and incentive to change behaviours and healthcare standard practice was needed. Her most famous visualisation shows deaths from preventable diseases (in blue) far outnumbered deaths from wounds (in red) during the war. She, along with allies, used the data to advocate for improving sanitary practices to prevent these diseases.

Her impact was data empowered in two ways - 

  1. Using data to understand the causes of a problem - where were soldiers dying most and of what conditions? This helped to pinpoint the problem of soldiers dying of wounds outside of battle rather than in battle. See Image 2 for her chart comparing soldier deaths to civilian deaths outside battle.

  2. Using data to tell the story to influence change - by bringing the data together in a set of powerful visualisations, she could use evidence to support her arguments for a radical new approach to hospital cleanliness.

Her life’s work hugely influenced the British Government resulting in the British Public Health Act of 1875, which set requirements for better quality sewers, running water and healthy building codes. This set a global precedent and was an important contributing factor in the doubling of human life spans from 1875 to 1975.

In the social care space, we have the same challenges of understanding what causes what problem, and what service or intervention can improve the outcomes. Social systems and the complexity of human behaviour means that social problems can be more difficult to diagnose than physical health problems. Yet the use of data to better understand what works and how to influence change are vital to making progress on a range of issues from homelessness and mental health to breaking intergenerational trauma and low income.

Taking Action

How can you draw inspiration from Florence Nightingale's legacy to enhance the impact of your organisation?

  1. Initiate your organisation's data impact journey - conduct a quick self-assessment to gauge your organisation’s data maturity and identify areas for improvement. Utilise our free template to kick-start this process. Remember, embarking on this journey is about continuous capability building, so don't feel overwhelmed - taking the first step is key.

  2. Start with a single data analysis project using your existing data - don't wait for perfect data. Many social organisations collect extensive data that often goes unused. Start a small project addressing a significant question and involve someone with analytical skills to analyse and provide insights.

  3. Make data empowerment a strategic priority for your organisation - Encourage your CEO and Board to lead by example, emphasising the importance of becoming a data-empowered organisation. Incorporate it into your strategic plan as a goal. CEOs should advocate for decisions based on the best available evidence, utilising existing data. Recognise the value of both frontline care and backend data analysis, celebrating achievements in both areas.

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