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Big data for good

Big data for good

March 22, 2016
Ohio State data researchers are making discoveries that have the power to impact your life.
Elisabeth Dowling Root uses data to explore the factors that influence children’s health.

A researcher and a mom

Elisabeth Dowling Root

Elisabeth Dowling Root has a background in public health and geography and is a researcher in Ohio State’s Translational Data Analytics program. She said her focus on children’s health and wellness grew out of her status as a mom: “I am always looking for very simple answers to questions like, ‘Should I vaccinate my child and why?’ or ‘What do I need to feed my children early in life to make sure they can reach their potential when they’re older?’ We’re constantly asking ourselves these types of questions as parents, and I get frustrated. So if I can take that feeling I had and translate it into research that can help people who are in a similar situation, that’s the ideal in my mind.”


Considering geography

Elisabeth Dowling Root

Root, who teaches classes in addition to her research work, firmly believes that context matters when assessing a health intervention: “Geography has a very unique view of the world. We see everything as interconnected. I’m connected to my environment and the people in my environment, and I’m also connected to policies and programs that are going on at a higher level than me that I have no ability to impact, for the most part. And most medical studies are completely devoid of that information. They don’t consider it at all. A lot of my work has been convincing people that I work with to measure those variables."


The socioeconomic factor

Part of Root’s work is based on quantifying socioeconomic factors that may play a role in determining how a child reacts to a medical intervention: “I think that’s the correct way of understanding child health. That’s where big data comes in. Because now we’re not talking about one child and measuring how he or she is doing over time. My data sets are often only 20,000 kids, which is not big data in and of itself. But it is 20,000 kids measured for five years continuously looking at 200, 300 or 400 variables that look at their situation in life. That blows it up big time.”

Data Analytics

Translational Data Analytics

Root is part of Translational Data Analytics @ Ohio State, a program that serves as a foundational part of Ohio State’s Discovery Themes’ effort. It’s home to 67 faculty representing 20 disciplines and added 19 new faculty in 2015. As part of TDA, Ohio State became the first research university to offer an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree in data analytics. TDA will eventually be housed in Pomerene and Oxley Halls, which are both currently undergoing renovations.


A public health perspective

Root said that her research has revealed some more long-term public-health benefits to vaccinating children: “When you vaccinate, your children think better because they don’t get sick so much when they are little. Their labor force outcomes are better. They have a higher salary and that sets up not only them but the next generation to be more productive members of society. People don’t understand that vaccines are not about just making sure my kid doesn’t get sick. There are these real long-term global implications for development.”

Ohio State

Solving grand challenges

Ohio State President Michael V. Drake has challenged the university to re-envision the role of the land-grant university in the 21st century. Ohio State’s Discovery Themes, which focus the institution’s intellectual might on solving the grand challenges of our time, are one of the ways Drake’s challenge is being met. Data analytics research conducted through the Translational Data Analytics program supports research in the Discovery Themes areas of energy and environment, food production and security, health and wellness and humanities and the arts.

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