Boys playing basketball outside

Healthy Data: Western Michigan University Mapping Project Guiding Public Health Initiatives

For kids who rely on free and reduced lunch programs at school, summer vacation is sometimes synonymous with hunger. A lack of food is unhealthy for growing bodies.

“If it’s not maintained throughout childhood, even if they don’t feel the immediate effects of it, it can affect the child’s health as they age,” said Phyllis Hepp, policy and planning director, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes.

In Michigan, the participation rate for summer food programs that target underserved children averages about 12 to 15 percent. In Kalamazoo County, it’s 21 percent, which Hepp credits to a dedicated anti-hunger coalition in the community and their use of an innovative data mapping program that allowed the group to visualize where the need is and take appropriate action to up the number of kids getting summer meals.

Image of food set out for kids to take as part of a summer food program in Gull Lake, Michigan.

Summer Food Service Programs like this one in Gull Lake ensure kids don’t go hungry over the summer.

“Because of that kind of strategic placement and outreach, we’ve been able to increase participation at those sites six percent,” she said.

Helping summer food programs increase their effectiveness is just one of many wins that have been realized since Western Michigan University instituted the Health Data Research, Analysis and Mapping Center, or HDReAM, in 2014. The program allows users to share and analyze data from a variety of sources that can better inform public health initiatives and interventions at the neighborhood level.

By mapping things like education and economics, transportation, maternal and child health, infectious disease hotspots, housing, services, medical information, and population census data, community groups are able to filter by geographic areas to see where needs aren’t being met.

Initial funding for the project was provided by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation and the Battle Creek Community Foundation. HDReAM is a collaboration between WMU, the Calhoun County Health Department and the Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services Department, along with other organizations.

The program is opening up a discussion about how data can be used to improve health services and outcomes, explains Kathleen Baker, director of the HDReAM Center at WMU. Her team is working to update the data mapping technology and website. They’re also helping other communities institute data mapping systems and will eventually roll out an online how-to resource for entities that would like to create their own system.

Hepp said non-profits often don’t have data whizzes on staff. Being able to access the expertise at WMU to layer different demographics against areas where access to food is low is extremely helpful to an organization like Loaves & Fishes, which wants to dedicate as many budget dollars as possible to its main mission of fighting hunger.

“To actually be able to map that out and see how it is affecting different areas of the community was just so much more powerful,” Hepp said.

Bringing community groups with similar missions together with data experts and tools can help quickly and easily identify local trends that can inform the development and evaluation of programs and policies, Baker explained.

“That’s where the good stuff happens when people get together in their areas of expertise,” she said.

The mapping project is instrumental in teaching a new generation of students about the role technology can play in shaping public health initiatives, as well as providing them insights into their community. Researchers have worked with other local organizations to identify and address gaps in health services related to sexually transmitted infections, maternal health care for at-risk moms and other complex issues. By seeing the bigger picture the data provides, quality of health is being improved for individuals and the communities they live in.

Like this post? Read more about how the BCBSM Foundation is impacting communities around the state:

Photos courtesy of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes

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