How the Kinder Institute Plans to Change the Way Houston Studies Itself

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | February 17, 2016

Image via flickr/Matthew Musgrove.

Image via flickr/Matthew Musgrove.

Dr. Katherine Ensor is a statistics professor at Rice University, where she’s leading the Kinder Institute’s efforts to develop its urban data platform.

The platform, part of a $7 million grant the Institute won earlier this month, is a first-of-its-kind effort to compile, organize and analyze data about a variety of topics affecting the Houston metro area.

Ensor spoke with Urban Edge editor Ryan Holeywell about the undertaking.

Ryan Holeywell: In a nutshell, what’s this all about?

Dr. Ensor

Dr. Ensor

Kathy Ensor: We’re building a one-stop-shop for data that concerns Houston and its urban environment. In addition to that, we’re building the analytical tools to help understand the data we’re able to gather.

We’re in the process of building it now. The goal is to have it up and operational by the end of the year, and probably even earlier than that for Rice researchers. In the future, additional researchers beyond Rice will have access, as it’s appropriate. The other aspect of the project is training that will go on. Our goal is to have the first course in May around spatial statistics and disease mapping.

RH: What do you hope researchers will do with the data?

KE: The goal is to understand ways to think about urban environments and ultimately to make everyone’s life better.

This is an opportunity to answer questions that integrate different data sets. Everything will be in one place, so you can look at linkages. One project Rice is looking at, for example, is the link between absenteeism in school, pollution, and diseases.

We’ve had this big push to understand how pollution impacts the health of individuals in Houston, so we’ll be able to go further with those questions and others. And we’ll actually be able to find some solutions. Do we need quicker EMS response rates? Is there an acute or chronicle health situation we can help address by knowing more about it? It’s this idea of pinpointing many of the challenges Houston faces in order to optimize solutions.

RH: What’s the biggest challenge in assembling something like this?

KE: There’s a lot of knowledge out there already about how to keep things secure. That’s hard, but it’s not unknown. The real challenge is the fact that every data set is messy. Our goal is to take raw data and turn it into a workable database that will be useful to researchers. That’s done almost on a case-by-case basis.

We want to work mostly with spatial data, so wherever it’s possible, all the data will be geocoded. The goal is to alleviate all these burdens on the researchers and build this fabulous resource for them. We want to make sure they aren’t spending six months in a basement, just cleaning up the data.

Another objective is ensuring that our research doesn’t just sit at universities. Questions about cities come from all different sources.

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