ISU researchers use data to help communities discover and solve biggest problems

AMES, Iowa — 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 U.S. 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. 
    Cassandra Dorius

    Cassandra Dorius

  • 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 U.S. 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 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 Extension and Outreach.”

Education with an impact

Instead of an abstract class exercise, ISU students worked directly with community stakeholders across Iowa this summer to learn about their most pressing problems, help them find their data, incorporate data they did not have and figure out how to solve their problems.

“This is an opportunity for our students to take all of the impressive knowledge they’ve gained at Iowa State and use it to support local governments and communities,” Dorius said. 

Vikram Magal

Vikram Magal

Vikram Magal, senior in business analytics and management information systems from San Ramon, California, worked on the Systems of Care team and the economic mobility data infrastructure.

“This gave me actual hands-on experience,” Magal said. “A lot of the work we did is actually being used to direct resources during this time of COVID-19. It helped me feel like I had an impact with the work I was doing.”

Kelsey Van Selous, a Ph.D. student in human development and family studies from Philadelphia, came to the Young Scholars program because it intersected with her background and interests in public health, social work and data science. She worked as a project manager, providing administrative support to the program as well as contributing to the Systems of Care project.

Kelsey Van Selous

Kelsey Van Selous

Van Selous pointed out that data-driven work is especially necessary during a pandemic when communities are making major decisions quickly. In addition, visualizations should not be an afterthought but integral to data science as a way to “communicate information in a quick snapshot.”

“We’re surrounded by data all of the time, but by learning how to harness that data to answer questions, the possibilities are endless,” Van Selous said. “The data world is changing so quickly that it can be an intimidating topic for students and communities that are not familiar with data. Working on these projects has shown me that data is powerful, and it can be harnessed to support the public good.”