ISU researchers use data to help communities discover and solve biggest problems
An Iowa State University program to help Iowa towns harness their data has led to four offshoot projects to help support community recovery related to economic vulnerability, substance use, and general support.
A three-state Coordinated Innovation Network of land-grant universities worked over the past year to expand the Data Science for the Public Good program, developed in Virginia and shared through five universities in Virginia, Iowa, and Oregon.
Last summer, multidisciplinary Iowa State teams of faculty, students, and ISU Extension and Outreach staff led four data-driven projects as well as an intensive 10-week training program to teach undergraduate and graduate students about applying data science techniques to real-world problems. All four projects have received additional funding to grow these efforts and have been shared nationally:
- Systems of Care: Through web-scraping and spatial mapping, the student-centered team worked with the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) to document and visualize the state’s formal and informal health care systems that support substance use recovery, including transitional housing, residential and nonresidential treatment centers, drinking driver education classes, gambling treatment centers, and access to virtual and place-based substance use meetings.
- Prevention of Excessive Alcohol Use: Iowa has one of the highest binge-drinking rates in the United States. In a partnership with IDPH, this research team developed interactive maps and analytic tools to identify who is at risk for excessive alcohol use and where they live to better target prevention and intervention resources.
- Community Capital Indicators: This project used data to map county-level indicators of human, financial, natural, and social assets that help communities thrive and support economic growth. Interactive data tools were designed to support extension leaders in identifying and monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on rural community recovery.
- Hotline System: During the COVID-19 pandemic, ISU Extension and Outreach’s hotlines saw calls increase by over 1,000%. The hotline research team created data science tools to help hotline staff do their jobs more effectively, spending more time with clients and less time on reports.
“The goal of our program is to help communities translate their data into action,” said Cassandra Dorius, associate professor of human development and family studies and project lead for Iowa State.
While Iowa State’s intensive, full-time Data Science for the Public Good Young Scholars program had to suddenly move online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program’s 12 students persevered, even developing and piloting a novel economic mobility data infrastructure to support recovery and growth. This system provides preliminary data-driven insights into the seven indicators of community capital in Iowa, Oregon, and Virginia.
The team also created materials for extension professionals across the United States to understand how to use the Community Catalyst framework and indicators to better work with their communities.
“The DSPG program is another example of how Iowa State is translating cutting-edge work on campus into workable problem-solving for Iowans,” said Gary Taylor, director of ISU Extension and Outreach’s Community and Economic Development program and professor of community and regional planning. “‘Big data’ only has value insofar as it can be put to use. DSPG is the perfect link between the advancement of data science on campus, instruction and translation of knowledge to students, and implementing on-the-ground solutions by ISU Extension and Outreach.”