Exploring a Culture of Health: Creating a Roadmap to Community Health

By Ian Vorster | July 23, 2014 7:12 am
County Health Rankings and Roadmaps help create healthy communities (Image: Shutterstock/Izf)

Creating roadmaps to healthy communities with County Health Rankings(Image: Shutterstock/Izf)

This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.

At first glance, Gem County in Idaho seems like it has everything made. Its county seat, Emmett was named “the best small city in Idaho,” and it will soon be launching a $53 million hydroelectric project destined to expand capacity to power 9,359 homes a year. But health data told another story when the community placed last in Idaho for healthy behaviors in the 2010 County Health Rankings.

News of the Rankings was a wake-up call for Bill Butticci, the mayor of Emmett, and many of the county’s citizens. They formed the Community Health Connection group with the goal of improving the county’s ranking.

The group began by conducting a community exercise from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) called CHANGE (Community Health Assessment and Group Evaluation ), a process that identified tobacco use, obesity, and chronic disease as areas on which to focus their health change efforts.

With no significant budget, the group began by offering free or low-cost programs—educating the community about tobacco use, establishing walking trails, and more. They also established a community garden along with a learning garden to teach youth healthier eating alternatives, and how to grow their own healthy food. And Gem County became the first in the state to ban smoking in certain buildings and park space.

Now Mayor Butticci uses the Rankings as a way to monitor the county’s health, “The Rankings give us a score card to keep us on track,” he says.

Gem County, Idaho used the County Health Rankings as a wake up call to build a culture of health (Image Credit: County Health Rankings)

Gem County, Idaho used the County Health Rankings as a wake up call to build a culture of health (Image Credit: County Health Rankings)

The County Health Rankings, an annual look at how counties compare within all 50 states on key factors that impact health, helps counties understand what influences the health of residents and how long they will live.

“The major appeal of the Rankings is that they simplify complex data into an easily understood number or rank that can be used to generate attention toward specific issues, such as obesity, children in poverty, high school graduation rates, housing and teen pregnancy,” says Dr. Bridget Booske Catlin, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Population Health Institute, and the director of the County Health Rankings. “They prompt action by community leaders, politicians, funders, and community residents to improve their health and the health of others in their community.”

The Rankings have their origins in America’s Health Rankings, state-level rankings that have been published since 1990.

“Curious about why the state rankings rose and fell over time, my colleagues at the university’s Population Health Institute (UWPHI) began to wonder if, just as Tip O’Neill maintained that ‘politics are local’, that perhaps ‘health is local’ too. They delved into the task of measuring the health of Wisconsin’s counties and released the first Wisconsin County Health Rankings in 2003,” explains Catlin.

Over the next few years, other states became interested in using UWPHI’s approach to understand the health of their counties, and the work came to the attention of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) which decided to collaborate with UWPHI to expand the Rankings to every state. In 2010, RWJF and UWPHI released the first national County Health Rankings.

Communities in Action

Communities have used the Rankings data to help them identify problems to solve, shift expectations to a longer view, and evaluate success over time.

In 2013, RWJF introduced the RWJF Culture of Health Prize to honor communities that have placed a priority on the health of their citizens. The prize winning communities vary in size and type – some are larger urban cities and some are small rural areas. But they all have one thing in common: In each of these places community leaders, individuals, business, government and educators have forged powerful partnerships to inspire people to live healthier lives.

Winners of the 2014 RWJF Culture of Health Prize (Image Credit: RWJF)

Winners of the 2014 RWJF Culture of Health Prize (Image Credit: RWJF)

“Our goal is to use this award to bring national attention to the prize winners’ strategies and solutions, and inspire other communities to learn from their experience and set their own course for better health,” says Joe Marx, senior communications officer at RWJF.

In the first year of the prize, about 160 communities applied and in the second year, that number increased to over 250 places who are working to make their communities healthier places to live, learn, work, and play. For 2014, the RWJF Culture of Health Prize winning communities are Brownsville (TX), Buncombe (NC), Durham (NC), Spokane (WA), Taos Pueblo (NM) and Williamson (WV).

“We also have worked closely with national partners—United Way Worldwide, National Association of Counties, and the National Business Coalition on Health, and their affiliates in hundreds of additional communities who are looking at data from the Rankings and then developing partnerships with people from many different sectors to build a Culture of Health,” explains Abbey Cofsky, a senior program officer at RWJF.

Get Involved

Check out your county’s ranking at County Health Rankings (There is a really helpful little toggle switch on the right of the page, which allows you to identify low-scoring areas). As a citizen scientist, are there data could you collect to help improve health in your county? For example, could you lead a charge to catalog the number of bike paths or parks in the area and their condition? Share your ideas below.

Think your community is doing a good job at improving health? RWJF recently released the Call for Applications for the 2015 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.


Interested in health related citizen science? There are a number of other projects that are seeking your input as a citizen scientist. The projects below are part of a database of more than 800 citizen science projects created and managed by SciStarter, an online citizen science hotspot.

Home Microbiome Study

Sound Around You

The Human Memome Project



MORE ABOUT: Culture of Health

Patients Who Were Research Subjects and the Doctors Who Listened – the Citizen Science of HIV/AIDS Research

By Caren Cooper | July 21, 2014 9:44 am

Editor’s Note: Flight MH17 was a horrible tragedy, with many lives lost, including HIV/AIDS researchers en route to a conference. In Caren Cooper’s latest Coop’s Citizen Sci Scoop, she explains how citizen science assisted with AIDS research, and how AIDS activists were able to become participatory members of the medical and scientific process.  Here, in full, is Caren’s post.

Many prominent people involved in HIV/AIDS research lost their lives when Malaysian plane MH17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine. HIV/AIDS researchers exemplify how scientists serve the public good. A key to HIV/AIDS research has involved embracing a certain type of citizen science.

The rapid advances in HIV/AIDS treatment in the late 1980s and early 1990s occurred because of major changes in medical research brought about by the lay public. In part, AIDS activists were eager to reform clinical trials in the United States. But equally important, the biomedical research community was (ultimately) receptive to this change.

The term “citizen science” in this blog is used to describe projects where the public engages in scientific research. It is usually through collecting and sharing observations or by coding data online. Citizen science can also be used more broadly to describe ways that the lay public participates in and influences the practice of science. (Indeed, the term “citizen science” was initially coined by Alan Irwin in 1995 to mean just that).

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Join the Global Telescope Network and help astrophysicists understand our universe!

By Carolyn Graybeal | July 19, 2014 7:58 am
1 Artist rendering of a quasar. Source: NASA/ESA/G.Bacon, STScI

1 Artist rendering of a quasar. Source: NASA/ESA/G.Bacon, STScI

In Discover Magazine’s September print issue, the article “To the Edge and Back” describes how a telescope as big as the world will give astronomers an extreme closeup when our galaxy’s black hole lights up. The Global Telescope Network provides a citizen science opportunity to connect with the world’s stargazers.

Our universe is filled with curious phenomena. Flickering pulsars, giant gamma ray bubbles, dark energy and dark matter1. These are just a few of the mysteries astrophysicists are trying to understand. If you have ever looked to the stars and wondered, the Global Telescope Network (GTN) is your opportunity to help unravel the riddles of our universe.

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MORE ABOUT: quasar, stars, telescope

Exploring a Culture of Health: How Can We Visualize Health Data for Better Communication?

By Carolyn Graybeal | July 16, 2014 3:52 pm
From Data to Story: Visualizing Health Data for Better Communication

From Data to Story: Visualizing Health Data for Better Communication (Image Source: Modified from VizHealth.org / CC BY)

This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.

There is a seemingly endless stream of health data. Visit the doctor and you get a report listing various bits of data such as your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. Listen to the news and you hear statistics on risk factors, medication side effects or mortality rates. All potentially useful information, but without background or context, the numbers are likely confusing, meaningless and eventually forgotten. “For health data to be meaningful, the person needs to see themselves in that data. To make this happen, we need to understand how to present data so that it conveys a complete message, not just a number,” says Andrea Ducas, program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

A team of scientists from the University of Michigan team set out to solve this problem, creating Visualizing Health, with support from RWJF, to explore ways to visualize health data. When designed well, visuals can be powerful tools for conveying information. “What we lack is data on how best to present data,” says Thomas Goetz, former RWJF Entrepreneur-in-Residence and collaborator on Visualizing Health.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Uncategorized
MORE ABOUT: Culture of Health

Lend Your Ears to Citizen Science! Help Understand Whale Communication with Whale FM

By Arvind Suresh | July 14, 2014 12:48 pm
A Pilot Whale Surfaces (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A Pilot Whale Surfaces (Image Credit: Wikimedia)

Submarines traveling in the Antarctic Ocean first recorded it in the 1960s —  a mysterious quacking sound that baffled observers around the world. They called it the ‘bio-duck’ calls. Many theories  floated around, yet the origins of the sound remained unknown. Until recently, that is. “Frolicking With the Whales” from in the July/August print issue of Discover Magazine describes how the mystery was finally solved and what it means for the study of the Antarctic Minke Whale. With the citizen science project WhaleFM, you can also help identify whale calls.

Vocalization and listening to auditory signals are particularly important for marine mammals such as whales and dolphins to survive. Why? Because in the depths of the ocean, neither sight nor smell is very useful. In fact, sound is a vastly more efficient medium of conversation, as sound travels four times faster in water than it does in air. Marine biologists have long used these fascinating whale ‘songs’ to track whale populations and study their behavior.

Killer Whales (Orcas) and Pilot Whales employ a complex array of calls to communicate within their species. An interesting aspect of both species is that they live in very stable groups (called pods) that are centered around the mother. Often, the offspring live with the mother for their entire lifetime. During this period, they develop unique dialects that help them identify and converse with family members even if they have strayed away from each other for feeding.

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MORE ABOUT: citizen science

Calling All Citizen Scientists: Please Report to ReefBase

By Sheetal R. Modi | July 11, 2014 3:01 pm

Photo credit: Yusri Yusuf / Reefs at Batu Mak Cantik, Redang Island, Malaysia

In the September print issue of Discover magazine the infographic “How to Restore a Dying Reef” shows us the current state of reefs in the world. ReefBase, a global information system for reefs, allows citizen scientists to submit pictures, maps, and reports to help conservationists monitor reef status and improve the livelihood of communities dependent on reef resources.

In February of 1998, the waters of the Timor Sea rose rapidly due to El Niño-related sea surface warming. Scott Reef, 150 miles off the coast of Australia, experienced a deadly bout of coral bleaching—photosynthetic microalgae were expelled from their coral habitats with the drastic temperature change, leaving the reef to languish without critical nutrients provided by these symbionts. With no nearby connecting reef systems to reseed Scott Reef with thriving algae, scientists doubted the renewal of the ecosystem. However, 16 years later, Scott Reef now abounds with as much biodiversity as the reef system was originally home to.

Nature’s success stories like those of Scott Reef shed light on scientists’ limited knowledge of how reef revival occurs, a more relevant problem today as anthropogenic effects threaten the ocean’s most diverse habitats. ReefBase, a citizen science project run by WorldFish that collects information on reefs from user input, offers data by which scientists and conservationists can monitor reef status and inform reef management.

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MORE ABOUT: coral, marine, ocean, reef

Citizen Science Essay Contest — Deadline July 13 at 11:59pm CT!

By Lily Bui | July 8, 2014 3:18 pm

Do you have a citizen science story? Tell us in this essay contest — your story could end up in Discover Magazine!

Science is all around us – and now anyone can be a scientist! Citizen scientists study everything from distant galaxies to firefly populations, helping researchers collect valuable data.

We want to hear about your experiences as a citizen scientist. Tell us, in 250 words or less, your story of participating in crowdsourced science – what you did, what you thought about it, or maybe a funny thing that happened on your way to the field.

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MORE ABOUT: citizen science, essay

37 People Want to Peer Inside Your Poop…You Know, for Science.

By Angus Chen | July 3, 2014 8:18 am
E coli at 10000x, original.jpg

Image: Eric Erbe (via Wikimedia), digital colorization by Christopher Pooley, both of USDA, ARS, EMU.  Electron micrograph of a cluster of E. coli, a member of the microbiomes of humans, dogs, and other species.

“Wasp’s Got Guts” in the July/August print edition of Discover Magazine discusses how wasp microbiomes set them apart. Turns out, our guts can be pretty different from one another too. 

Rob Knight, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and his colleagues want poop from every person in America. And over the past couple of years, thousands of citizen scientists have complied by shipping little vials of feces to his lab. To clarify, it’s not exactly the poop that these scientists are after but the hidden germs within. Knight and his colleagues study the human microbiome, the mosaic of microscopic organisms teeming on and within our bodies.

In recent years, research on this host of microorganisms is revealing that our microbiome is as intricately linked to our health and bodies as any native human tissue. The human body is, in some sense, a scaffold for a vastly greater mass of microbes – by some estimates, making us 90% microbial.  In turn, our microbes provide for us by playing “important roles in metabolizing components of our diet and drugs,” says Knight. “Disruptions of the gut microbiome have been linked to a wide range of diseases,” where the disappearance of certain key organisms or changes in the species represented in the gut goes hand in hand with illnesses like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or neurological diseases. In other words, the kinds of bacteria living inside you figure into how healthy you might be.

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Exploring a Culture of Health: Detecting Signals of Wellbeing

By Carolyn Graybeal | July 2, 2014 1:25 pm
How can we leverage technology to monitor signals of wellbeing? (Image Shutterstock/ Oko Laa)

How can we leverage technology to monitor signals of wellbeing? (Image: Shutterstock/Oko Laa)

This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.

Imagine if everyday technology could transform how we manage our health and wellbeing? What if your phone could alert your doctor to a change in your behavior? Or what if grandma’s stove could tell you she is already up and about in the morning? It sounds complicated but as it turns out, it might simply be a matter of tapping into the data generated from everyday devices. Two independent groups in California are doing just this.

Using Mobile Technology to Help Youths with Mental Illness

At UC Davis behavioral scientists with the Early Diagnosis and Preventive Treatment (EDAPT) Clinic are embarking on a yearlong project to study whether mobile technology can improve treatment for young people who are in the early stages of psychotic illness. The EDAPT group has teamed up with Ginger.io a health data start-up to assess “users’ social, physical and mental health status”[1]. Through an app, users can actively input their daily symptoms, medication adherence, mood, and how they are coping, while information on their movements and daily social contacts, such as the number of incoming telephone calls and text messages, is gathered in the background. All of this data provides a patient and his or her clinical team with a finer resolution of that patient’s health profile. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Uncategorized
MORE ABOUT: Culture of Health

Digital Fishers: Data from the Deep, Judgment from the Crowd

By Ian Vorster | June 25, 2014 9:30 am

Save the sablefish (also known as black cod) and help scientists by counting the fish in video clips.

Want more marine-themed citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!

Sablefish on soft bottom habitat.

Sablefish on soft bottom habitat.

Scientists call it Anoplopoma fimbria, fishers might know it as the sablefish, while some chefs call it the Black Cod. Found hovering just above the muddy North Pacific seabed, you may have enjoyed one down at the Moby Dick restaurant or whatever your favorite seafood restaurant is called. The sablefish—a yummy opportunistic feeder known for its buttery taste has been harvested from US waters since the late 1800s.

In Alaska, heavy foreign fishing depleted the sablefish stocks through the seventies until the US took control of the waters in 1976 and phased out foreign fishing. After that, the fishing season began to shorten and the number of fishers actually increased. When this happens a fishery produces a lot of poor quality fish—the outcome is an unstable stock. In 1995, conservation managers implemented a program that sought to more strictly regulate the Alaska commercial fishery; it set limits for each fisher, but within a longer season. This decreased the harvest of immature fish, which meant those fish had a good chance to reproduce at least once.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
MORE ABOUT: animals, fish, marine, ocean

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