Built Environment and Health (BEH) Research Group is an interdisciplinary program of research at Columbia University. Led by epidemiologist Andrew Rundle and sociologist Kathryn Neckerman, BEH uses spatial data to examine the impact of the built environment, including land use, public transit, and housing on physical activity, diet, obesity, and other aspects of health. The group has participants from public health, social science, and urban planning with a research staff based at the Department of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health and at the Columbia Population Research Center. Other members of the team are at New York University, American University and Smith College.
Urban Informatics and Population Health
Currently fifty percent of the world’s population lives in cities and within two decades it is expected that seventy percent of the world’s population will live in urban environments. The high densities of people, governmental agencies and institutions, built and technological infrastructure, sensor deployment, internet traffic and mobile devices make urban areas centers of intense data production. However, until recently much of this data was either sequestered away and largely inaccessible or was ambient and difficult to tap into. Innovations in information technology, OPEN.GOV initiatives, the availability of online geographic information systems tools, the rise of social-media and the advent of crowd sourcing/Mechanical Turk applications make possible the concept of ‘urban-informatics’ – the tapping into, organization and analysis of the massive data effluent produced by urban centers. These data and tools provide us with an unprecedented opportunity to characterize the built and social environments of urban spaces and to study urban health.
Internationally, the rapid spread of cell and text based communications and of location aware mobile devices in the urban centers of low-to-middle income countries has allowed these cities to leap-frog several generations of telecommunication/data infrastructure and business models experienced in Western industrialized nations. Innovations in mobile technology and the development of mobile lifestyles in these new urban centers have created new models of social, economic and health care interaction. The opportunities for using urban informatics in these newly emerging global cities to study and intervene on population health are just beginning to be explored.
Over the past several years the BEH Research Group has developed research projects that utilize urban informatics approaches to studying built environments and population health, including projects to:
- study urban forestry and childhood asthma using LIDAR remote sensing data captured at a resolution of six inches for the entire city of New York,
- develop methods to use Google Street View to study neighborhood disorder and childhood obesity,
- utilize a decade of Department of Health and Mental Hygiene restaurant inspection data to study how neighborhood socioeconomic conditions and changes in City policy on reporting inspection results impact food safety,
- study obesity and physical fitness of ~680,000 public school children using Department of Education records from the NYC FITNESSGRAM program and City wide built environment data.
All of these projects involved the re-purposing and linking of multiple data sets licensed from governmental agencies, commercial sources and health studies. This work has shown the enormous potential for the use of urban informatics as a tool to study population health. Moving forward we are using GPS and accelerometer data to understand how people utilize neighborhood spaces and are investigating the use of cell phone data, social media data sets and internet advertising data traffic as ways of understanding neighborhoods.
Contact Andrew Rundle at firstname.lastname@example.org