Visualizing community health

Tufts recently held a week-long virtual hackathon where students turned data into compelling visualizations to help communities improve health.
Screenshot, data visualization of child obesity in Milwaukee
Screenshot of grand prize winning dashboard developed by Kelsey Yew, E23, Autumn Stelzer, A23, and Emika Brown, E23.

In January, Tufts University leveraged its deep bench of expertise in both community health and data visualization to host VizAthon: Disrupting Childhood Obesity. Organized by ChildObesity180, a research center at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and by Tufts’ Data Intensive Studies Center (DISC), the VizAthon invited Tufts students from across the university to find new ways to represent and communicate science and data on childhood obesity.

The event set a goal of helping community organizations like health departments and nonprofits to better understand, track, communicate, and address the complex public health problem of childhood obesity. A cross-school team of organizers at Tufts invited them to use publicly available datasets to create static or interactive visualizations to display data, with the option to either use existing programs like Tableau or Excel or to write new programs using programming languages like R or Python.

Students formed teams at the start of the week and were encouraged to think outside the box and work with team members from across disciplines. “There were some participants who were computer science or data science majors, and some who hadn’t really used any data analysis before,” said Polly Harrington, A21, who worked with the team of Friedman School, DISC, and School of Engineering faculty, students, and staff to organize the event. That range of skill sets and backgrounds was by design: with support from Tufts Data Lab, organizers offered workshops throughout the week on valuable skills and topics like Python and user-centered design.

Crucially, VizAthon also gave students the opportunity to consult with and incorporate feedback from community coalition groups from across the U.S. that have been working for years to try to solve issues related to child obesity in their own communities. Lisa Robinson, director of Tufts’ neighbor Shape Up Somerville, delivered a keynote speech to kick off the event. Representatives from Shape Up Somerville, Live Well Greenville (South Carolina), and healthTIDE (Wisconsin) participated in virtual office hours where teams were able to ask questions and learn from the community groups’ experience.

“From a design perspective and a human factors engineering perspective, the most important part of a design is to understand what end users want to do with a system,” said co-organizer Professor of the Practice James Intriligator, who teaches human factors engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “We think of these community partners as, ultimately, the end users, or as surrogates for the type of people who will be end users” – making the inclusion of their perspectives essential.

Thirty-two students from the Tufts School of Medicine, School of Engineering, the Friedman School, and the School of Arts and Sciences signed up to join teams during the VizAthon, which took place over a week in January before the start of the spring semester. Their projects ultimately went in a number of different directions. Taking inspiration from the VizAthon projects, the event organizers now hope to build out even more sophisticated platforms and prototypes that can be refined with more time, software, and data. “It was really impressive to see what [student teams] were able to accomplish,” said Research Assistant Professor Larissa Calancie, a member of the planning team.

Professor Christina Economos, also of the Friedman School and director of ChildObesity180, agreed. “Our students are unbelievable,” she said. “When we were with the judges as they watched all of the presentations and deliberated, I thought, ‘Wow, we’re in good hands. The future is bright.’ ”  

Grand prize winner:

Team 8: Kelsey Yew, E23, Autumn Stelzer, A23, and Emika Brown, E23
Yew, Stelzer, and Brown created a dashboard of child obesity risk factors in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that tracked factors like grocery store accessibility, the proportion of public parks, access to health resources, community walkability, and farm to table school programs. Yew is a data science major, Brown is majoring in environmental engineering, and Stelzer’s major is as-yet undecided.

Runners up:

  • Team 1: Sayuri Sekimitsu, M24, Miranda Tsang, M24, and Nate Hansen, M24
    This team of medical students from Tufts School of Medicine created a dashboard tracking the connections between U.S. food access, obesity, and diabetes.
  • Team 2: Caroline Ding, E23, Clea Bell, A24, Teo Patrosio, E23, and Martina Tan, A21
    This School of Engineering and School of Arts and Sciences team brought together students with chemical and electrical engineering, cognitive brain science, and undecided majors to build a dashboard that related childhood obesity to the prevalence of limited food access in New York state.
  • Team 9: Irene Chang, E24, Elizabeth Cucuzzella, E24, and Jessie Huang, A24
    This School of Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering team with Data Science majors focused on the cyclical nature of childhood obesity, representing data that showed that if a child’s family has a history of obesity, the child is likely to experience its effects firsthand.

The VizAthon was a virtual event supported by grant funding from the Data Intensive Studies Center (DISC) and the JPB Foundation. Watch the winning presentations and learn more at the VizAthon website. The event was planned by a cross-school team:

  • Dr. Christina Economos, Professor and Director of ChildObesity180, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
  • Dr. James Intriligator, Professor of the Practice, Department of Mechanical Engineering, School of Engineering
  • Dr. Larissa Calancie, Research Assistant Professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
  • Julie Appel, Researcher, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
  • Katie Stebbins, Executive Director, Food & Nutrition Innovation Institute, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
  • Dr. Karin Knudson, Senior Data Scientist, Tufts Data Intensive Studies Center (DISC)
  • Dr. Erin Hennessy, Assistant Professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
  • Susanna Gerber, MS student in Nutrition Communication and Research Assistant, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
  • Polly Harrington, A21, majoring in Engineering Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, and Research Assistant at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
  • Kristi Van-Meter, A21, majoring in Biopsychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, and Research Assistant at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy