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ETSU Roan Scholar part of national team mapping health data

Contributed • May 4, 2018 at 11:35 PM

A computing student at East Tennessee State University is among the members of a national 4-H Leadership Team sparking conversations about ways GIS mapping can lead to improved health.

Austin Ramsey, a Roan Scholar and computer science major from Kingsport, is a member of the National 4-H GIS Leadership Team that has spent the last two years analyzing county health rankings data provided annually by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The team uses a geographic information system, or mapping, to layer different sets of data.

“The data by itself has meaning, but at the same time can be meaningless. If we map that piece of data, it gives new meaning to numbers and helps us understand them,” Ramsey said.

The team, which consists of about a dozen high school and college students, only sees one another in person once per year and conducts most of its work remotely.

They began mapping five variables – adult obesity rate, diabetes, food insecurity, exercise access and children in poverty. The resulting hot spot analysis revealed patterns of high and low obesity rates across the country.

“When people first see the map they immediately walk up and look for their county,” he said. “Without any context or numbers, they know if their county is doing good or bad. They automatically know that green is healthy and red is a concern.”

The GIS team also used an outliers tool to find areas within the hotspots that are opposite of the overall trend.

“What I think our overall goal has always been is to help people see where they stand, but are there counties around you doing better or worse than you and how can you foster collaboration?”

As a result of their work, the GIS team was invited to present at both the Environmental Systems Research Institute International Users Conference and the 4-H National Healthy Living Summit.

Ramsey created a website, https://healthdatatoaction.com, which offers access to their presentation materials. He hopes that communities will be inspired to use the available data to create action plans, implement new initiatives and begin to improve health outcomes.

Ramsey, who is now the veteran member of the national team, will travel to Louisiana this summer to hold workshops encouraging others to follow their data-to-action model.

“We’ve had overwhelming support and great feedback from this,” he added. “We are giving them the tools and inspiring them to go back to their communities and take action.”

The team is also turning its focus to opioid abuse. Ramsey says they have begun mapping the data to find some of the root causes of the epidemic.

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