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Local knowledge key to building healthier communities

Your zip code is just a number meant to guide mail delivery, but studies show that it predicts your lifespan better than your genetic code. For instance, the average life expectancy in New Orleans varies by as much as 25 years in communities only a few miles apart.

This health disparity is driving health care providers, researchers, urban planners and community members to work together to build healthier, more equitable communities — addressing the key factors that determine health and well-being outside the clinic.

“It’s not enough to ask how we can build healthier, happier and greener communities without first addressing the real inequalities that are impacting the design of our cities,” said Antwi Akom, PhD, an associate professor of environmental sociology, public health and STEM education at San Francisco State University, at Stanford Medicine X earlier this month.

However, this design movement depends on access to reliable data, which led the Obama administration to launch The Opportunity Project to “unleash the power of data and technology to expand economic opportunity in communities nationwide.” The project released 12 smartphone apps to provide easy access to governmental data on housing, transportation, schools, neighborhood amenities and other critical community resources.

One of these apps, called Streetwyze, was developed by Akom and Aekta Shah, a PhD candidate at Stanford, through the Institute for Economic, Educational and Environmental Design. Streetwyze is a mobile, mapping and SMS platform that collects real-time information about how people are experiencing cities and local services, so the data can be turned into actionable analytics.

“The real challenge of the 21st century health data revolution is how you bridge this gap between official knowledge and local knowledge in ways that make the data more reliable, valuable, authentic and meaningful from the perspective of everyday people,” said Akom at Medicine X. “We think the missing link is real-time two-way communication with every day people so they can participate in the design solutions that meet their every day needs.”

Streetwyze harnesses local knowledge to address questions like: How walkable is my neighborhood? Where can I buy affordable healthy food? How safe is my local park?

For example, a map of East Oakland based on county and city business permits shows many grocery stores in the area. But the reality, according to Akom and Streetwyze, is that most of these supposed grocery stories are actually liquor or corner stores, where you can’t find fresh vegetables or food.

In addition to providing more reliable data to design healthier communities in the future, the Streetwyze data already plays a critical role for community members and some organizations. “Every community has assets," said Shah. "The Streetwyze platform actually helps lift those up, so that communities can better share those resources and organize around those assets that already exist.”

At Stanford, Shah is using Streetwyze to research how this digital technology may impact youth self-esteem, civic engagement, environmental stewardship and more.

Previously: Citizen science effort is empowering communities to advance health equity,  Creating safer neighborhoods for healthier lifestyles and Stanford study sheds light on wealth, zip code and lifespan 
Photo by Chris Waits

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