How do sidewalks, green spaces and litter affect whether people living in a given area suffer from diabetes, obesity or substance abuse? A new project in the School of Public Health will use “big data” to learn more about how people’s neighborhoods influence their physical and mental health.Quynh C. Nguyen

Quynh C. Nguyen, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, received a $1.34 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)/National Library of Medicine for her four-year project, which will examine the connection between neighborhood features and people’s health while also assembling a repository of images of built environments that will be available to the public.

“There’s a growing literature connecting different physical features” like walkability and cleanliness to health, Nguyen said. A litter-free, sidewalk-heavy neighborhood might inspire people to walk more, leading to reductions in obesity and associated diseases.

Nguyen hopes to use Google Street View’s vast resources to create summaries for each of the country’s ZIP codes and its counties. Her team will develop informatics techniques to produce neighborhood quality indicators, and will create an interactive geoportal to make the information publicly available.

The project will build on Nguyen’s previous research, which found that people living in ZIP codes with the highest proportion of green streets, crosswalks and commercial buildings/apartments were about 25 percent less likely to be obese and about 15 percent less likely to have diabetes than people living in ZIP codes with fewer of those features.