Learn How Students Used Data Science to Explore Health, Wealth, and Education in the Bronx

Victoria Benitez
September 09, 2021

A team of undergraduate students from Columbia University and Lehman College, CUNY, used sophisticated data visualization techniques to explore the correlation between environmental factors and statistical measures of school dropout rates, income, and health disparities as part of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality’s (BCEQ) research project, Environmental Determinants of Health, Wealth, and Education.  

Over the summer, the undergraduates applied their data science skills to projects that focus on the need to address quality of life issues for New York City residents in underserved communities. Graduate students from the Columbia Department of Statistics served as mentors during the program.

The students presented their report via Zoom at a public BCEQ meeting on September 8. The report findings include:

  • The dropout rate among public school students who live near highways in the Bronx is substantially higher than among those who don’t. 
  • Bronx residents who live farther from parks suffer from more health problems than those who live near green spaces. Additionally, positive effects of living near a park are less significant if the park is dirty or in disrepair, as those parks go unused.

The completed report is a call to action for Bronx residents about the effects of bad environmental policy. “The series of maps produced by this research raise troubling policy implications for the maintenance and operations of parks, schools, and highway corridors,” said Dr. Robert Fanuzzi, president of BCEQ, an all-volunteer organization that is celebrating 50 years of environmental advocacy. 

“Columbia is working to improve the public good by expanding and diversifying the Public Interest Technology data science workforce,” said Columbia Professor Tian Zheng, principal investigator for the Columbia-Lehman Public Interest Technology Data Science Corps (PIT-DSC). “Our partnership with Lehman and BCEQ advances our mission to create data science solutions that have a societal impact.”

Earlier this year, BCEQ submitted a proposal to the Columbia-Lehman PIT-DSC, which was facilitated by the Town + Gown program, a New York City-wide partnership between universities and local communities that bring academics and practitioners together to create plans for workable solutions to public issues. The proposal was selected for PIT-DSC’s inaugural summer undergraduate research program. The research was also supported by a grant from New America’s Public Interest Technology University Network.

As part of the project, BCEQ board members met weekly with the research team of students from various disciplines, including sociology, math, statistics, and computer science. Led by Zi Fang, a graduate student in statistics at Columbia, the students used datasets that incorporated Census data, New Yorkers for Parks reports, and city and state agency databases to come up with their findings. 

“We are excited with the work of the students. We asked them to help us find out why the Bronx is still 62 out of 62 in the state for negative health outcomes,” said BCEQ Board member Karen Argenti. “The program helped BCEQ find a road to environmental justice in the Bronx.  The numbers and their correlations tell a story of less funding, staffing, maintenance, and planning for open spaces, education workforce, and development in the borough. In other words, systemic racism. I think the students learned a lot, as well.”

The project was a success for everyone involved. “We are thrilled to be partnering with BCEQ and Columbia on a project that uses our students’ expertise to understand environmental conditions in the Bronx,” said Lehman Assistant Professor Jennifer Laird, co-principal investigator for PIT-DSC. “This project provides invaluable data science training for our students, most of whom are from the Bronx, and it provides stakeholders with the evidence they need to make informed policy decisions.”