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College of Social Work

Institute translates the power of big data to advance the well-being of South Carolinians

Imagine the irony of a community with one of the highest rates of diabetic-related amputations in the state that happens to be located in the capital city just a stone’s throw from one of its largest hospitals.

In South Carolina, you don’t have to imagine. It’s a real-life conundrum for residents of North Main Street in the state capital of Columbia. Despite being minutes from some of the most advanced medical services in Richland County, they often don’t have access to the services they need to manage diabetes and prevent complications that can lead to amputation. Among the challenges is the unavailability of healthy food options.

“We have a group of individuals with certain medical conditions who have some of the poorest outcomes because of things like food deserts and the inability to purchase fresh foods and vegetables and a lack of diversity of shopping,” says Ana Lòpez-De Fede, associate director for the Institute for Families in Society in USC’s College of Social Work. “Just because they live in an urban area does not mean they have access to service.”

One objective of the Institute for Families in Society is to share data and resources with the public and civic and government organizations to identify geographic clusters of health advantages and disadvantages within the state, such as food deserts. For example, the institute’s expertise in geospatial analysis and big data has been used to inform an initiative examining healthy food sources as an intervention to prevent and treat diabetes.

Created in the 1990s, the institute focuses on three research areas – integrated health and policy, child mental health, and early childhood – to improve policy, strengthen families and communities, and support vulnerable populations. With over 21 terabytes of data collected from the census, state agency databases, and other public records, the institute can help users visualize patterns and provide context for needs assessments and data-driven policy, practice, and programs.

“A primary role of the institute is translating the research and disseminating that information in a way that people at all levels can understand and use it,” says associate director Kathy Mayfield-Smith. “We help translate the power of big data into a tool that anyone can use.”

One of those resources is SC HealthViz, a website that provides geospatial analysis, health statistics, and innovative policy research. The data allows users to explore the geographic context that shapes outcomes and policies at local and regional levels.

Tools on the SC HealthViz website can help stakeholders – policy makers, community-based organizations, religious organizations, students, and individuals – combine and analyze factors such as poverty, housing, lack of transportation, food insecurity, crime rate, and high health care needs to identify needs, strengths, and opportunities for targeting resources.

“As a state, we have lots of strengths, but we also have multiple challenges. The data we provide and how we provide it allows communities to be more efficient about resource allocation and to identify areas where the greatest impact will be,” says Lòpez-De Fede. “The entire state or county may not need those services. It may

be one particular area – even one ZIP code – driving some of the poorest outcomes and opportunities for intervention.”

One of the Institute’s significant projects is the South Carolina Birth Outcomes Initiative, which focuses on maternal and child health and improving South Carolina’s score of 96 out of 100 in maternal mortality and morbidity based on data such as conditions among hospitalized mothers, utilization of prenatal and postpartum care, drive time to care, hospital births and social determinants of health. The statewide portal is used by hospitals for quality improvement around maternal and child health and by agencies such as First Steps to assess needs in early childhood programs and to identify childcare-related issues.

Other examples of how the institute’s one-stop data resources can be used include:

· Helping a community identify gaps in services such as child or medical care.

· Creating a community profile for a nonprofit organization to show how many residents are experiencing poverty or are uninsured.

· Assisting a student with an assignment to profile health care availability for different population groups.

· Providing context for a legislator to understand the needs of their constituents for behavioral or mental or health services or substance abuse treatment.

One of the newer tools available from the institute is the Children’s Health and Resource Geographic Exploration for Data-Driven Decisions, supported by funding from The Duke Endowment. The CHARGED3 project is an online resource hub providing background, a snapshot infographic, and a Geospatial Environmental Scan. The GeoEScan, one of several developed by the institute, is an interactive research tool and mapping platform designed to visualize data and explore gaps in children’s access to health care, continuity of care, and the availability of family support and resource programs.

“By using GIS and other tools to support collaborative, data-driven decision-making, CHARGED3 allows users to engage with the content and to explore the data for themselves to help frame questions and prompt discussions,” says Becky Wilkerson, formerly the Team Lead for Data Visualization and Web-based applications.

CHARGED3 is an excellent example of the institute merging the strengths of its research areas – child well-being and community focus – leveraged around multiple data sets to tell a story, Lòpez-De Fede adds. As with the other resources available through the institute, users can download the information and build user-friendly data visualizations such as maps, charts, graphs, or a story map to accommodate different ways people process and understand information.

For a state with multiple challenges and limited resources, the institute’s tools help users interpret data to establish priorities and guide how services are allocated. Through the College of Social Work, the Institute also serves as a model for students – across disciplines – to translate what they're learning in the classroom to improve practice with real-life applications and clinical interventions.

“The more effective we are in understanding the opportunities and challenges, the resources that are needed, the questions we should be asking, and the partnerships we should be forming, the better able we’ll be to advance our commitment to achieving healthy communities and move the needle forward to address the overall well-being of South Carolinians,” says Lòpez-De Fede.

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