New partnership links datasets to improve food systems

Perhaps you’re eating an apple while reading this. How did that apple arrive at your hand? How far did it travel to get to your grocery store, cafeteria, or farmer’s market? How was the apple grown and processed? In a larger sense, how does the food sold in your neighborhood or region affect the health of the people there?

Ayaz Hyder

Ayaz Hyder

Two TDAI affiliates are helping to answer these questions in a unique collaboration between TDAI and the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT), two focus areas within the university’s Discovery Themes.

Ayaz Hyder, assistant professor of environmental health sciences, and Casey Hoy, InFACT faculty director and professor and Kellogg Endowed Chair in Agricultural Ecosystem Management, are co-principal investigators on a new NSF-funded project entitled “Developing an Informational Infrastructure for Building Smart Regional Foodsheds.” They join three colleagues from California: principal investigator Thomas Tomich and co-PI Matthew Lange, both from UC Davis, and co-PI Suzanna Lewis, from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. The project also includes the cities of Columbus and Sacramento as partners.

Casey Hoy

Casey Hoy

The group aims to build a general informatics framework for better understanding and optimizing food systems by assembling data held by various government and social service organizations in the Columbus and Sacramento foodsheds. The term “foodshed” is adapted from “watershed,” which describes how the water in a certain geographic place flows from one location to another. “It’s the sources and pathways for food consumed in particular place,” said Hoy. “Those sources can be anywhere from a planter box on your kitchen windowsill to literally the other side of the planet.” Examining foodsheds and their strengths and weaknesses is about “envisioning food flows in a way that benefits everyone,” he said.

The diverse data streams will include environmental; food production, processing, and distribution; and health and healthcare. By developing methods to bring them together, the researchers can better characterize the food systems, and communities in turn can better address challenges such as food system failures; inequities in food access, availability and affordability; and downstream consequences on community health.

Conducting analytics with these combined datasets will provide new insights into foodshed factors that ultimately impact people’s health. “For example, one could say, ‘Where are the apples coming from in this school versus that school,’” said Hyder. The answer would be complex: where the seeds came from, where they were planted, where the apples were processed, how they were shipped, and the costs. “One of our colleagues at UC Davis calls it ‘the Internet of Food,’” he said. “There are very real-world questions that take combined datasets to get at.”

In Columbus, the project will bring together community organizations with datasets and an interest in learning more, including Smart Columbus, the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, Columbus Public Health, and Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Key to the project’s success, Hyder said, is ensuring its outcomes benefit the partner organizations. “We hope to use the products that come from this initiative, but we also want to pay back the people who contributed data to the initiative. It needs to show value to them, and build that value proposition for the data providers that it will benefit them not just 10 years down the road, but immediately.”

The types of products that result, such as linked datasets and analytics tools, will depend largely on the community collaborators and their information needs. “Part of the project is engaging partners on envisioning software or analyses or other products made possible by aggregating data that would help them in their own work,” said Hoy. A steering committee of researchers and community members is part of the project’s mix, with members who represent the range of expertise required to tackle something as complex as food systems, including computer science, data analytics, food science, sustainable agriculture, engineering, public policy, economics, medicine, and public health.

“There’s already growing interest from healthcare systems on addressing food insecurity,” Hyder said. “This will provide a resource so they can do that and improve patient outcomes.”

Hoy and Hyder traveled to UC Davis in November 2016 for a conference on the Internet of Food. “That got the conversation started,” Hoy said. “I think it’s meaningful that our colleagues at UC Davis reached out to us. I think it speaks to OSU’s reputation–and growing reputation–as a result of the Discovery Themes.”

While Sacramento and Columbus may appear different on the surface, they have similarities that lend themselves to collaborating on this grant. Both are medium-sized cities surrounded by agricultural areas, and both have created food action plans with the goal of making their food systems more resilient and sustainable.

Both cities are also large enough to have issues around food insecurity and equity, which are multi-faceted challenges for any community. “Food security is a cultural issue,” Hoy said. “The way we serve and prepare food and share food is a cultural issue.”

The project has the potential to be transformational in terms of the data it accesses and leverages for linkage, but also through the creative problem-solving it will enable. Hyder envisions startups or hackathons utilizing the linked data to tackle food security and related issues in a holistic manner like never before. “Through data and gathering people around data, we will start some conversations that were never possible before.”


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