UChicago Students Identify Chicago Health Solutions

 |   Adam J. Hecktman

No one can accuse University of Chicago students of taking ANYTHING lightly. Give them a challenge, and they will make it their quest to solve it, sacrificing sleep to do so. So when the Chicago Department of Public Health asked them for help in understanding the risk factors that are contributing to certain neighborhoods’ elevated risk for developing diabetes, a dozen teams quickly formed. I had the honor and difficult task of participating as a judge (difficult because they were all truly inspiring projects).

chicago-health-solutionsDemographic and social factors seem to be determinants of health, but is a difficult task to understand specifically how they contribute to the overall disease, and how knowing what they are can improve health equity across the city’s neighborhoods. Students were asked to:

  • Identify which factors are most important to measure in order to develop understandings of diabetes prevalence at the neighborhood level
  • Develop methods for collecting and analyzing data that would assist the Department of Public Health to create targeted approaches to helping these communities

No small task. When you look at the aggregated data on Chicago Health Atlas for the locations of diagnosed and reported diabetes, it is apparent where it is happening. Now the exciting part is coming up with what factors contribute and what can be done to better diagnose and treat the condition. Students were given some resources to get them started.   Among those resources were rich datasets that could be analyzed, aggregated, visualized, and mapped to derive insights. An example of those datasets include those from:

Give a UChicago student some data and let them run with it – always a formula for creativity. And they did not disappoint. The projects had a good amount of variety and range. The included projects to:

  • Combine data sets to create probability models. This helps determine where to put education and health improvement focus today. Over time it also provides a model for getting ahead of trends and providing guidance on where to focus preventative measures in the future.
  • Visualizations and aggregations to determine risk factors. While we know a great deal about the risk factors of diabetes, there is still much to be discovered.
  • Recommendations for partner organizations. In many neighborhoods, gaining the cooperation of faith based organizations is a great way to scale. In others, community health care organizations and food retailers are key to scale.
  • One group tapped into the concept of social cohesion, leveraging the bonds of a community to help inform and intervene with respect to controllable and preventable diabetes.
  • Another used the “Food Truck” model. The idea is to take diabetes testing and food choice education to the targeted population, rather than relying solely on that population acting on recommendations to get tested and proactively learn about food choices.

The students, from across disciplines and both graduate and undergrads, were as inspiring as their projects. So too were my fellow judges. Each is working on very interesting programs with a pivot on diabetes in neighborhoods:

  • Erin Callahan is the Community, Government and Media Relations with the American Diabetes Association in Chicago. I am working with her on the Venture to Stop Diabetes: a program driving the advancement of innovative new technologies in the fight against diabetes.
  • Ellen Cohen is the Executive Director, Center for Health and the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. They do and training at the intersection of health and the social sciences. Her background in both policy and social science was valuable for the students, in that she could guide them on what makes for a solid research project that leads to good policy.
  • Emily Laflamme, MPH. Emily is an epidemiologist at Chicago Department of Public Health. The CDPH has a broad and rich agenda called Healthy Chicago, with a focus on good food options, creating places and spaces for improving fitness, and preparing to respond to public health threats. Emily was able to leverage her experiences in partnering with educational and philanthropic institutions, faith communities, business community, and neighborhoods to address large health concerns like diabetes and its contributing risk factors.

I learned a great deal from the judging panel, as I am sure the students did. The program was run by Gabby Wimer, Co-founder and Group Director of Chicago Health Solutions at the University of Chicago. They organize public health case competitions to address pressing health issues in Chicago’s South Side. She was a stickler for structure and time keeping, which I appreciated.

As the City of Chicago looks to tap into the skills, talents and passions of its citizens in addressing urban challenges, it has a major leg up. Our world class universities give us a resource pool of students in all disciplines, ready to lend their minds and energies to focus on discovery and solutions. Combined with committed professionals like Erin, Ellen, and Emily, we have a formula for tackling the seemingly intractable urban challenges of our day.

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Adam J. Hecktman
Adam J. Hecktman

You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.