Bridging the Opportunity Divide

How Mapping Health Data Can Reduce Childhood Obesity

September 17, 2014
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How Mapping Health Data Can Reduce Childhood Obesity
Jana Birchum/Getty Images
A nonprofit figures out how to identify at-risk neighborhoods.

There is no blanket solution when it comes to fighting childhood obesity, especially in an urban setting where diverse cultures, economic disparity and access to parks and fitness activities can create a complex web of challenges.

Add insight from an abundance of community stakeholders including educators, parents and local lawmakers and finding a single solution to combatting the problem is near impossible. But an Austin, Texas, nonprofit may have found the key to getting everyone’s attention when it comes to understanding the problem: Visualization.

Children’s Optimal Health (COH) is charged with improving health for the city’s youth, but the nonprofit discovered that identifying the problem meant looking at the issue on a neighborhood level. Thanks to a Texas law that requires public schools to record fitness data on every student, COH used the information to create maps that identify “hotspots” that include social and economic information, according to Government Technology.

“You don’t have to know English or have an education to see this and say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my neighborhood,’” said COH Executive Director Maureen Britton.

Through data-sharing agreements with more than 12 central Texas education and health entities, COH aggregates student information including BMI and cardiovascular fitness scores, geo-tagged by neighborhood. Student names are removed and the data is completely anonymous — focusing only on identifying the issues families in these local communities face. As the Austin tech sector continues to bring more business and more people to town, COH is committed to ensuring low-income residents don’t fall by the wayside.

“There’s not enough attention paid to the struggles in Austin as the population outside of the tech industry grows. That’s our concern,” Britton said. “The more we bring this data to life through the maps, the more we get data-driven information to the right people.”

COH is also able to overlay the student health maps with other data sets, creating more granular narratives to show how the city can improve wellness initiatives. For example, a neighborhood’s proximity to a concentration of fast food restaurants or a community’s crime rate could contribute to the area’s obesity rate.

But perhaps it’s COH’s ability to network institutions that may otherwise not collaborate that might be most impressive about the nonprofit, as Government Technology points out. For example, getting hospitals involved in changing school physical education curriculum or schools to engage in interventions for existing infrastructure are just a few examples of how COH has found a way to get all community stakeholders on the same page.

As more cities collaborate on civic innovation initiatives, officials should take note the power of a picture and how it can reshape the conversation.

MORE: The Radical School Reform That Just Might Work

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