Biocomplexity Institute Awarded $1 Million Grant to Expand Data-Driven Governance and Advance Economic Mobility in Rural Communities

Rural scene

January 21, 2020

From local neighborhoods and schools to courtrooms, hospitals, fields, and forests, data are everywhere, providing us the power to solve problems like never before. Communities large and small now have access to a wealth of data they can use to assess conditions, develop strategies and policies, evaluate impact, and make critical decisions. However, not all communities – particularly those that are small or rural – have the expertise or resources necessary to access and leverage complex data for real-world benefits. Researchers from the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute are working to change that for communities nationwide. 

With the support of a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Biocomplexity Institute, in partnership with Virginia Tech, Virginia State University, Iowa State University, Oregon State University, and the universities’ respective Cooperative Extension Systems (CES), will pilot a three-state initiative, “Towards A National Community Learning Network,” and utilize data science to solve complex, community challenges and advance economic mobility across Virginia, Iowa, and Oregon. This collaboration will test the viability of CES as a dissemination network to discover opportunities and build data-driven governance at local levels where relevant expertise may be lacking.

Through the Institute’s established Community Learning through Data Driven Discovery process, the initiative will build partnerships with CES professionals and equip them with the skills and knowledge to partner with local stakeholders and their associated land-grant universities in Virginia, Iowa, and Oregon to bring data-driven solutions to rural communities.  

“Since the mid-nineteenth century, our country’s CES network has effectively disseminated our institutions’ research to rural areas,” said Sallie Keller, principal investigator and Division Director and Distinguished Professor, in the Social & Decision Analytics division at the  Biocomplexity Institute. “By leveraging the network — which has a foothold in every county in the United States — we have the potential to expand the benefits of research and data insights related to economic mobility and opportunity to some of the most geographically isolated and economically vulnerable communities in America.”

The CES network, which is critical to this community learning network to support economic mobility, is embedded in more than 3,000 counties and cities across the country. The network focuses primarily on distilling and distributing research findings from public and land-grant universities to local governments, residents, and interest groups to address issues in agriculture and natural resources, human sciences, and community and economic development. 

Regional Rural Development Centers (RRDC) also are central to this initiative. Centers connect rural areas to the nationwide network of land-grant university researchers, educators, and practitioners to provide useful information and hands-on, community-level training. There are four centers in the United States, and each uses its regional network of land-grant universities to conduct research and develop education programs to teach rural communities how to make science-based decisions for economic mobility and development. 

“To date, the RRDC approach has lacked a data science framework to help small and rural communities use data to address local problems. The Community Learning through Data Driven Discovery process fills this gap,” Keller explains. 

The three-state initiative brings together local government representatives, CES professionals, and academic researchers. The teams take an interdisciplinary community-based research approach to tackle community issues such as improving food, housing, job, and public  security; advancing community health; and reducing social isolation. Initiative objectives include:

  • Identifying primary barriers to economic mobility in rural communities across Virginia, Iowa, and Oregon;
  • Developing the technical and research capacity needed to help communities create strategies to address those barriers; 
  • Empowering the CES to serve as an effective distribution channel for key public goods (e.g. data and tools) to help rural communities advance mobility strategies; and
  • Evaluating impact of economic mobility research on communities and of the scalability of the three-state initiative.

“We are grateful to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its generosity that provides the opportunity to work with our partner universities  and CES – with whom we have a shared vision to bring data science in-service of the public good,” Keller said. “We want to democratize data and empower rural leadership to take an evidence-based approach to advancing economic mobility in their communities. With this funding, we’re able to take a major step toward this important goal.”

By working across diverse states, with different public and land grant universities and different compositions of CES networks, the Biocomplexity Institute aims to create a blueprint for other states to launch similar programs, ultimately extending data science in support of rural prosperity. This pilot  will help provide best practices and know-how for other public and land-grant institutions across the country to replicate the program in their states and regions. 

Keller leads the initiative, as principal investigator along with Co-Principal Investigators Stephanie Shipp, Deputy Director and Research Professor in the Social & Decision Analytics division at the Biocomplexity Institute; and Cassandra Dorius, Assistant Professor in the Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University.