TOPEKA, Kansas — What if researchers could go to a single hub for vast deposits of information on a range of issues from water quality to court rulings to the medicinal powers of marijuana?
Armed with all that existing research, they might begin to draw conclusions that apply across the country. They might also avoid repeating the work of other researchers.
Two professors at Kansas State University, Nathaniel Birkhead and Audrey Joslin, have begun construction on that online, open-source data hub. They’re teaming with colleagues at Rochester University, University of Notre Dame, University of Virginia, University of North Carolina, Charlotte and North Carolina A&T State University.
That open-knowledge network — one that non-computer-savvy researchers anywhere could tap into — could make available state data on everything from Supreme Court decisions to preschool access to water quality.
The website’s built-in data visualization tools would let people scour for links between those many data sets to understand what influences public health and more.
“The whole point is to make it something that’s accessible,” said Birkhead, a political scientist, “that people can come to without having to have computer programming skills.”
Experts from political science, geography, ethics and other fields teamed up to create the data hub, which isn’t yet viewable to the public.
The project, still in its infancy, won money from the National Science Foundation. The team hopes to secure more funding from the NSF after finishing work to demonstrate how the data hub could be used to explore topics like opioids, the environment and medical marijuana.
Already, researchers across the country put painstaking hours into gathering state or regional data for their work. And though they increasingly upload it online, it’s not centralized in a way that stops others from wasting time hunting down the exact same thing.
Joslin, a geographer who studies conservation policies, knows what it’s like putting together hard-to-get information, such as the wildfire data that she works with.
“A lot of this isn’t easily accessible,” she said. “You have to contact individual — either state, federal or local — governments.”
Smarter online access could help everyone from public policymakers and nonprofit groups to journalists and private citizens.
“If we’re able to create a place where we could put all this stuff and make it accessible to everybody,” Joslin said, “then everybody sort of wins.”
Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @Celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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