Building an Integrated South Carolina Environmental and Human Health Grid

By Lee Crandall

A symposium held at the Madren Conference Center on June 25, 2009, brought together about 25 Clemson researchers with state agency experts on South Carolina's health and environmental data. The purpose of the symposium was to provide participants an opportunity to explore the ways in which cyberinfrastructure can link information about health hazards, toxic exposures and health effects.  A Cyberinfrastructure Seed Grant, an award offered through Clemson's CI Days held in May 2008, funded the symposium. Clemson's Department of Public Health Sciences organized and hosted the event.

The first "Earth Day" in 1970 helped to forge a broader awareness of the impact of human activities on our natural environment, and the effects of environmental degradation on human life.  Nearly 40 years later, recognition of the importance of our built environment is increasing.  We spend the vast majority of our lives not immersed in nature, but in human-modified places such as homes, schools, offices, factories, parks, farms, airplanes and highways.  As a result, our health and wellbeing is affected by a highly complex interplay of conditions in the natural and built environments. Nevertheless, academic research that relates to human health and the environment is almost always segmented into disciplines and sub-disciplines like medicine, public health, biology, toxicology, architecture, urban planning, environmental engineering, and many others.  A key 21st century challenge is to find ways to promote research that transcends these disciplinary boundaries and unifies environmental and health data from a multitude of sources. 

Goals of the symposium were to establish collaborations across disciplines, become more familiar with existing cyberinfrastructure efforts involving environmental and health information, and discuss opportunities for building new research opportunities and enhanced data systems. Clemson presenters and participants in this day-long symposium included the following:

  • Jim Bottum, CIO and VP for Clemson Computing and Information Technology
  • Jill Gemmill, Executive Director for Cyberinfrastructure Technology Integration
  • John Ulmer, CCIT
  • Deborah Whitten, CCIT
  • Scott Hammel, CCIT
  • Lee Crandall, Chair of Department of Public Health Sciences
  • Deborah Falta, Department of Public Health Sciences
  • Khoa Truong, Department of Public Health Sciences
  • Rachel Mayo, Department of Public Health Sciences
  • Charles Rice, Department of Biological Sciences
  • Peter Van den Hurk, Department of Biological Sciences
  • Mark Schlautman, Department of Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences
  • Bill Baldwin, Graduate Program of Environmental Toxicology
  • Linda Mota, Graduate Program of Environmental Toxicology
  • Anne Dunning, Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture
  • Miao Guang, Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture
  • Tamara Tavares, Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture
  • Sara Sarasua, Greenwood Genetics Center

Participants and presenters from South Carolina agencies included the following:

  • David Patterson, Chief of Health and Demographics from the Budget and Control Board
  • Jared Shoultz, Director of the Division of Public Health Informatics of the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC)
  • Doug Calvert, Chief Operating Officer of DHEC
  • Erik Svendsen, epidemiologist with DHEC's Bureau of Disease Control and faculty member in the USC Arnold School of Public Health.

Participants discovered that key components of a comprehensive statewide data grid already exist in state agencies and universities. Dr. David Patterson presented an example of spatial online analytic processing (SOLAP), which is under development by the Budget and Control Board (see figure 1). Jared Schoultz presented an example of a real-time South Carolina community Assessment (SCAN) output (see figure 2).There is great potential to link environmental and health status data in ways that can foster increased trans-disciplinary research. Ultimately these new tools may help us identify public policy interventions that make us healthier by improving the way that we interact with our natural and built environments.

Lee Crandall is chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at Clemson University.