Author: ivorster

Exploring a Culture of Health: Creating a Roadmap to Community Health

Creating roadmaps to healthy communities with County Health Rankings(Image redit:  Flickr/Don Debold)

Creating roadmaps to healthy communities with County Health Rankings(Image credit: Flickr/Don Debold CC BY 2.0)

This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.

At first glance, Gem County in Idaho seems like it has everything made. Its county seat, Emmett was named “the best small city in Idaho,” and it will soon be launching a $53 million hydroelectric project destined to expand capacity to power 9,359 homes a year. But health data told another story when the community placed last in Idaho for healthy behaviors in the 2010 County Health Rankings.

News of the Rankings was a wake-up call for Bill Butticci, the mayor of Emmett, and many of the county’s citizens. They formed the Community Health Connection group with the goal of improving the county’s ranking.

The group began by conducting a community exercise from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) called CHANGE (Community Health Assessment and Group Evaluation ), a process that identified tobacco use, obesity, and chronic disease as areas on which to focus their health change efforts.

With no significant budget, the group began by offering free or low-cost programs—educating the community about tobacco use, establishing walking trails, and more. They also established a community garden along with a learning garden to teach youth healthier eating alternatives, and how to grow their own healthy food. And Gem County became the first in the state to ban smoking in certain buildings and park space.

Now Mayor Butticci uses the Rankings as a way to monitor the county’s health, “The Rankings give us a score card to keep us on track,” he says.

Gem County, Idaho used the County Health Rankings as a wake up call to build a culture of health (Image Credit: County Health Rankings)

Gem County, Idaho used the County Health Rankings as a wake up call to build a culture of health (Image Credit: County Health Rankings)

The County Health Rankings, an annual look at how counties compare within all 50 states on key factors that impact health, helps counties understand what influences the health of residents and how long they will live.

“The major appeal of the Rankings is that they simplify complex data into an easily understood number or rank that can be used to generate attention toward specific issues, such as obesity, children in poverty, high school graduation rates, housing and teen pregnancy,” says Dr. Bridget Booske Catlin, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Population Health Institute, and the director of the County Health Rankings. “They prompt action by community leaders, politicians, funders, and community residents to improve their health and the health of others in their community.”

The Rankings have their origins in America’s Health Rankings, state-level rankings that have been published since 1990.

“Curious about why the state rankings rose and fell over time, my colleagues at the university’s Population Health Institute (UWPHI) began to wonder if, just as Tip O’Neill maintained that ‘politics are local’, that perhaps ‘health is local’ too. They delved into the task of measuring the health of Wisconsin’s counties and released the first Wisconsin County Health Rankings in 2003,” explains Catlin.

Over the next few years, other states became interested in using UWPHI’s approach to understand the health of their counties, and the work came to the attention of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) which decided to collaborate with UWPHI to expand the Rankings to every state. In 2010, RWJF and UWPHI released the first national County Health Rankings.

Communities in Action

Communities have used the Rankings data to help them identify problems to solve, shift expectations to a longer view, and evaluate success over time.

In 2013, RWJF introduced the RWJF Culture of Health Prize to honor communities that have placed a priority on the health of their citizens. The prize winning communities vary in size and type – some are larger urban cities and some are small rural areas. But they all have one thing in common: In each of these places community leaders, individuals, business, government and educators have forged powerful partnerships to inspire people to live healthier lives.

Winners of the 2014 RWJF Culture of Health Prize (Image Credit: RWJF)

Winners of the 2014 RWJF Culture of Health Prize (Image Credit: RWJF)

“Our goal is to use this award to bring national attention to the prize winners’ strategies and solutions, and inspire other communities to learn from their experience and set their own course for better health,” says Joe Marx, senior communications officer at RWJF.

In the first year of the prize, about 160 communities applied and in the second year, that number increased to over 250 places who are working to make their communities healthier places to live, learn, work, and play. For 2014, the RWJF Culture of Health Prize winning communities are Brownsville (TX), Buncombe (NC), Durham (NC), Spokane (WA), Taos Pueblo (NM) and Williamson (WV).

“We also have worked closely with national partners—United Way Worldwide, National Association of Counties, and the National Business Coalition on Health, and their affiliates in hundreds of additional communities who are looking at data from the Rankings and then developing partnerships with people from many different sectors to build a Culture of Health,” explains Abbey Cofsky, a senior program officer at RWJF.

Get Involved

Check out your county’s ranking at the County Health Rankings  (There is a really helpful little toggle switch on the right of the page, which allows you to identify low-scoring areas). As a citizen scientist, are there data could you collect to help improve health in your county? For example, could you lead a charge to catalog the number of bike paths or parks in the area and their condition? Share your ideas below.

Think your community is doing a good job at improving health? RWJF recently released the Call for Applications for the 2015 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

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Interested in health related citizen science? There are a number of other projects that are seeking your input as a citizen scientist. The projects below are part of a database of more than 800 citizen science projects created and managed by SciStarter, an online citizen science hotspot.

Home Microbiome Study

Sound Around You

The Human Memome Project

 

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Exploring a Culture of Health: Connecting Patients and Researchers to Enhance Discovery

This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.

Nicholas Volker aged six, from Minona Wisconsin had suffered from a highly inflamed intestine since he could walk 1. The strange disease that his doctors could not diagnose required no less than 100 surgeries. Dr. Alan Meyer, Nic’s doctor and a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin eventually decided to try a radical form of diagnosis—DNA sequencing. What Dr Meyer and his team found was a rare, ‘undiagnosable’ disease—one that could only be treated by a bone marrow transplant from umbilical cord blood.

Though he was eventually treated, Nic, his parents and his doctors had gone through a long and painful ordeal in searching for the cause of his disease. Nic could have experienced a far easier path to his eventual treatment if we had a better understanding of our genome and how it relates to diseases. While many research efforts are focused on deciphering our genome, accelerating basic research and its translation to the clinic requires an integrated effort on a much larger scale. Importantly this effort should involve the participation and more meaningful collaboration of citizens and patients in research.

“People who live with a disease every day are untapped experts. Allowing their data and experience to inform the medical discovery process will increase the likelihood that the resulting discoveries and clinical encounters give them the opportunity to live healthier lives, and will help us build a national Culture of Health,” says Paul Tarini, a Senior Program Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) which supports transformative ideas through its Culture of Health initiative.

With support from RWJF, several efforts are underway to explore how data, insights, and knowledge contributed by patients can further medical discovery and improve health care.

Partnering on research

BRIDGE, operated by Sage Bionetworks, is an online platform where patients can track their health data and work together with researchers and funders as virtual teams on research. “What this means,” says Thea Norman, director of Strategic Development at BRIDGE, “is that for someone who is interested in becoming more involved in medical research as a patient—someone who has insight into a disease they are suffering from, and who is motivated to understand what they are suffering from—BRIDGE offers significantly more opportunity than the traditional method of research.”

Open Humans: An online platform that connects participants and researchers

Open Humans: An online platform that connects participants and researchers

Whether collected on an app, through survey or via a personal online journal, BRIDGE offers citizens a place to store their data in whatever form they record personally. This allows researchers and other patients to potentially find correlations between some of the data collected and a journal entry that provides critical information.

The added benefit for people who contribute data? “Early insights and perhaps a shorter, faster path to new therapies,” says Tarini.

A number of research projects will be piloted on BRIDGE in the coming year—all of them will engage patients as partners in the process.

Sharing data

Open Humans is an online platform that connects research participants willing to publicly share data about themselves with researchers interested in using and adding to that public data. In the pilot phase, Open Humans will work with the Harvard Personal Genome ProjectAmerican Gut and Flu Near You GoViral—all studies that return data to participants and enable them to share it. Eventually, scientists will be able to work with participants to create additional data.

“When research studies agree to share data with participants, something incredible is possible: people have the ability to aggregate and share that data, to be combined with other data and re-used in powerful new ways,” says Jason Bobe, program director of Open Humans. “More sophisticated research questions and new insights become possible when data can be integrated from multiple research studies: does genetic background impact flu resistance? Does the community of microbes in the gut influence flu susceptibility?”

Improving treatments and clinical practice

PatientsLikeMe’s Open Research Exchange (ORE) is another platform that gives both researchers and patients a space to work together. The goal of the Open Research Exchange is to identify health outcomes that are meaningful to patients and develop measures that assess treatments or clinical practices against these outcomes.

Open Research Exchange: Patients and researchers working together to develop meaningful health outcomes

Open Research Exchange: Patients and researchers working together to develop meaningful health outcomes

Paul Wicks, the Vice President of Innovation at PatientsLikeMe and leader of the ORE initiative explains, “Many health outcomes used today to assess the efficacy of new treatments or clinical practices were developed from the perspective of the health system—what can we measure objectively, such as a blood test, or what costs the most, such as an emergency room visit. But what matters to patients is the impact of living with disease – the symptoms and side effects, the fact that they can’t work, or that they feel stigmatized.”

A classic example of this is Alzheimer’s disease. Many trials use a test called the ‘mini mental state examination,’ which asks patients to remember simple words, or say who the president is, or cite today’s date. As Wicks notes, “Caregivers don’t bring Grandpa to the doctor because he can’t remember who the president is. They bring him because he can’t remember who Grandma is.”

 Are you participating in the Harvard Personal Genome Project or American Gut and thinking about joining the Open Humans network? Interested in sharing your data and collaborating on research through BRIDGE? Want to help make health care more patient-centered through the Open Research Exchange? Start a conversation in the comments below about what would incentivize you to use these platforms and participate in collaborative research to build a culture of health.

 

If you want to do more, you can always contribute to other health related citizen science projects below that are on SciStarter, an online hotspot for citizen science!

Human Memone Project

DIYGenomics

 

References

1. A story of faith and one tough boy” Dec 25, 2010 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/112397804.html

Image credits

Logos for Open Humans and the projects that contribute to it were obtained from openhumans.org. The Open Research Exchangelogo was obtained from openresearchexchange.org

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First Leaf, First Bud, First Fruit: Project BudBurst

Record plant observations and learn how changes in climate and habitat affect a plant’s lifecycle with Project BudBurst.

Participants record observations for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Dennis Ward, of Project BudBurst.

Participants record observations for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Dennis Ward, of Project BudBurst.

Gardeners worldwide have their favorite sayings about when to plant, when to reap, how much rain is going to fall, or how dry it will be. For example, according to one proverb, “If the oak’s before the ash, then you’ll only get a splash; but if the ash precedes the oak, then you may expect a soak.” Typically tested by time, and cast over generations by people who till the land, they identify the prime time to sow or harvest. According to an English folk-rhyme, “After a famine in the stall, (bad hay crop) comes a famine in the hall, (bad corn crop).” Endemic to regions around the world, the words often identify both the geographic locale and the season. Gardeners have not only learned the sign for a wet spring or a dry summer, but they also know that there is a connection between the first leaf, the first flower, the first fruit and the corresponding season. Scientists call the study of this timing phenology, and it is the primary concern of a public participation project called Project BudBurst (official site).

Various methods of reporting for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Project BudBurst.

Various methods of reporting for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Project BudBurst.

Project BudBurst is a national field campaign designed to engage the public in the collection of important ecological data about plant phenology. The project makes the data freely available so that others can make discoveries from it, and publish and write about what they find. Rather than looking for the next “big” thing, the team focuses their efforts on developing and building new and better tools, and opportunities for people across the spectrum, from educators and scientists to students and the public, to explore and engage with the data so that they can make their own discoveries. According to Sarah Newman, a citizen science coordinator with Project BudBurst, “Project BudBurst participants have been sharing their observations of plants with us since 2007. Most climate change studies need about 30 years of data to really start saying something concrete about the effects of climate change, so we have many years of data collection ahead of us yet. That being said, we are starting to see trends for some plants that show they are blooming earlier than was historically true.” One example reported in an American Scientist article records how a group of researchers modeled the timing of cherry-blossom peak bloom for trees in the Washington, DC region under various scenarios of climate change. Project Budburst data has also been used in a number of regional historical studies. Take for instance a 2012 study, in which data collected in the Chicago region was compared with records accumulated by botanists Floyd Swink and Gerry Wilhelm. “Swink and Wilhelm collected phenology observations from the mid-1950s to the early 1990s. Of the 15 local species for which we had good contemporary and historical data,” said the authors, “13 had an earlier first flower in one or more years between 2007 and 2012 than was ever observed by Swink and Wilhelm.” Operating within these timescales, the data begins to reveal the effects of climate change on plants.

Learning about phenology. Photo courtesy of Carlye Calvin, University Center for Atmospheric Research, Project BudBurst.

Learning about phenology. Photo courtesy of Carlye Calvin, University Center for Atmospheric Research, Project BudBurst.

An important element of Project BudBurst is science education. Dr. Sandra Henderson, the project director, enjoys working on Project BudBurst because it allows her to combine her background in biogeography and experience in developing climate change educational programs. When questioned about data verification—a common bugbear for volunteer-collected data, she said, “Traditionally, we had an annual ‘clean up’ of the data base by plant scientists associated with Project BudBurst. These subject matter experts helped in making decisions of what data would be shared each year. As our program has grown, this has proven to be somewhat inefficient. For future campaigns, we will be exploring online approaches to data verification.” Newman is also excited about Project BudBurst’s education initiative, which will facilitate data collection. “Just this week we announced our first cohort of Certified Instructors who will be able to offer presentations and workshops about Project BudBurst in their communities and local areas. Because our program is entirely online and we have a small staff, we are thrilled that these instructors will be able to create personal connections and offer in-person opportunities to engage with Project BudBurst across the country.” (You can learn more about these instructors here) A folk saying used in the Midwest goes like this, “When maples flower and woodchucks dig up the hillsides, ducks are scouting for nesting sites, and onion sets can be tucked into the garden soil.” As Project Budburst collects data to inform climate change studies, what happens to these sayings as phenology keeps pace? Do they migrate with the warming spring? Will this become a northeastern quote, or will it just fade into the mists of time?

References:

Chung, U., L. Mack, J. I. Yun, and S.-H. Kim. 2011. Predicting the timing of cherry blossoms in Washington, DC and mid-Atlantic states in response to climate change.
PLoS ONE 6: e27439. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0027439

Images: Project BudBurst

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.


Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at dragonflyec.com

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What’s Invasive? Find out with citizen science.

Headed outside? Learn more about how you can help report invasive species with the What’s Invasive? smartphone app!

California Hillsides

A photo of the savanna oak woodland with invasive grass in the spring.

I first visited Southern California in the spring. The hillsides were covered in emerald green grasses and spotted with great old Valley Oak trees—a landscape that is known as savannah oak woodland. After visiting a few national parks I soon learned that all the beautiful green grass was invasive—most of it imported as seed in horse feed during the Spanish period from other regions of the world: Mexican feather grass, pampass grass, fountain grass—the list goes on and on. Grass was also used from as early as 1500 as ship ballast, for trade and as food.

The invasive grasses took over the hillsides to such an extent that they changed the landscape. This conversion to non-native annual species was so fast and all encompassing that very little is known of the original composition of the perennial species. What we do know is that natural Californian grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems in the United States.

What was lost? One example is that traditional perennial grass such as purple needlegrass did not blanket the ground. They grew in clumps or patches, leaving space for wildflowers to take root. The flowers in turn attract a wide range of insects, which in turn attract many predators… and so the food chain grows.

The National Park Service along with the University California Los Angeles and two other partners have created a website and an app called What’s Invasive? (official site) where you can record any invasive species. The website is set up for just more than 90 parks and it’s growing—largely because you can add your own site. Once you have logged the park you would like to record invasive species for, you just have to wait for it to be verified. You provide the name of the park, GPS coordinates, description, website, and logo or picture for the site.

Screenshot

Screenshot of the app (click to enlarge).

You can select from a range of plants, plant diseases, insects, and animals that are lodged in the system. If you don’t see a species you want to add, you can request that it be entered into the system. You can also use this to create custom species descriptions for your park or site! And if you’re not a specialist, there is no reason to tackle invasive species on your own. Most of us only learn to identify two or three non-native species by site once we learn that they are invasive. You can add other people you work with as managers to edit the species list, site information, verify reports, or work with users who have made reports. So there is no real reason to fear adding a native species by mistake, since an expert will check it.

Invasive species are a threat to native plants and animals, crowding natives, consuming food sources, or acting as fire hazards. The NPS has found that having groups such as schools run short-term “campaigns” is highly effective for locating invasive species, and a lot of fun. And even if you are planning to visit a local national park as a family, download the app and get your kids involved in the fight against invasive species.

Bugs: Some people have reported issues with registration and signing in, while there are some bugs with the Android app. The iPhone app is listed as being available but Apple doesn’t have it in their app store.

Images: Ian Vorster

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.


Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at dragonflyec.com.

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3 Citizen Science Projects You Can Do on Earth Day

It’s Earth Day! Celebrate the planet we live on with these amazing environmental citizen science projects!

African Elephants

African elephants in the Zuurberg Mountains, South Africa.

The Earth Day Network records that in 1970 the average American was funneling leaded gas through massive V8 engine blocks, and industry was exhausting toxic smoke into the air and chemical slush into the water with little legal consequence or bad press.

The nation was largely oblivious to environmental concerns, but Rachel Carson’s New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962 set the stage for something new, as she raised public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and public health.

Earth Day was born in 1970 and it built upon a new sense of awareness, channeling the energy of a restless youth, and putting environmental concerns front and center. Now it is celebrated in some way in 192 countries across the world. As we celebrate Earth Day 2014, here is a selection of citizen science projects you can choose from, and they are perfectly suited to both the young and young at heart.

1. Mammal Map is a project that helps to update the distribution records of African mammal species. Based out of the University of Cape Town, you can add recent photos of animals photographed in Africa.

2. Based in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds in Forested Landscapes volunteers observe and record forest-dwelling birds in North America to help scientists better understand the birds’ habitat and conservation needs. As a volunteer, you will help answer the following questions: A) How much habitat do different forest-dwelling bird species require for successful breeding? B) How are habitat requirements affected by land uses, such as human development, forestry, and agriculture? C) How do the habitat requirements of a species vary across its range?

3. By 2050 we will need to feed more than 2 billion additional people on the Earth. By playing Cropland Capture, you will help improve basic information about where cropland is located on the Earth’s surface. Using this information, researchers will be better equipped at tackling problems of future food security and the effects of climate change on future food supply.

Image:  Ian Vorster

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.


Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at www.dragonflyec.com.

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WildObs: Instagram for Nature Lovers

Collect and share pictures of memorable encounters with nature using the WildObs app.

Want more citizen science? Don’t worry. There’s an app for that.

Gopher Snake

There are nature lovers, wildlife photographers, hikers, kayakers and birdwatchers who pursue their passion every day, and most of them do so in the hope of spotting an osprey, or catching a glimpse of a mountain lion or bear. As rewarding as these sightings are, there is an equally fulfilling joy to be found in identifying a clump of apple snail eggs, butterfly or a nighthawk chick. This is what WildObs (official site), a crowdsourced program that partners with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) does—it serves as a portal geared for enthusiasts rather than naturalists or scientists—users who want to gather, share and comment on their day to day sightings.

Adam Jack the creator of the program launched it in 2008. “As a nature lover with a glorious number of encounters, and a reasonably technical iPhone user, I wanted to be able to remember wildlife I saw; what, where and when I saw the wildlife, and ideally try to build a community database to identify good places to find critters,” he said. The idea to build WildObs came in part from Goodreads; the system for books you’ve read, books you’d like to read, and book discovery. “Why not be able to record what wildlife you’ve seen, mark species as favorites, and so on. Given that knowledge the system could inform you about what has been seen recently around you, educate you with the wildlife you might not know existed, and bring you local news from other wildlife lovers.” The idea was to connect people, places and wildlife.

You can record your encounters for your own studies, or enjoyment, use the records you produce to develop a personal wildlife calendar for the year, or maintain a life list as you learn about new species. The NWF uses the program as part of their Wildlife Watch initiative, to track the occurrences of natural phenomena. In addition you can share wildlife Stories online and join the NWF Flickr group. All of this is available to both first timers and professionals.

Western Snowy Plover Family

As a wildlife community, WildObs participants help each other find the nature (for a photograph or close encounter) and users learn about the species in their neighborhoods, so the app essentially offers a collaborative wildlife experience—it helps people connect people to wildlife. When asked if the project plans to publish any findings related to the user collection, Jack says, “The database only has tens of thousands of records to date. WildObs has become more a system of ‘interesting encounters’ than every encounter. It doesn’t have bioblitz-type data, but rather more individual sightings—a Moose here, or a Bobcat there.” There are currently a few thousand users.

WildObs Android

There is always at least one exciting thing about a participatory project—something that enthuses users or that sparked the first idea for it. For Adam Jack and WildObs that would be how the app shares encounters amongst the community. “The app send its users custom notifications tailored to their interests, location and species encounter history. The ultimate goal for WildObs is to connect and engage people with the wildlife around them, and to excite them to go explore and enjoy,” says Jack. It actually sounds a bit like Instagram for nature lovers, which seems to be a pretty neat idea. Join the WildObs community via your Android or iPhone and use technology to help you connect with nature.

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.

Images: Ian Vorster

Get the Android App

Get the iPhone App

WildObs on Flickr

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