Varshney and Bai awarded Bloomberg Data for Good Exchange Paper Award


Daniel Dexter, ECE ILLINOIS

As concern about obesity rates in the United States continues, CSL and ECE Assistant Professor Lav R. Varshney and his former student Hongyang Bai discovered a way to combat the troubling trend with the help of Big Data from location-sharing social media app Foursquare.

The research group was recognized as a prize winner of the NYC Media Lab - Bloomberg Data for Good Exchange (D4GX) Paper Award. D4GX is a conference that focuses on data analytics research that drives social good.

Lav Varshney
Lav Varshney
Lav Varshney
For winning the award, Bai was given the opportunity to present his paper the next day at the prestigious Strata+Hadoop, one of the largest data sciences conferences in the world.

Bai and Varshney collaborated with New York University Professor Rumi Chunara to analyze data from location-sharing social platform Foursquare.

They compared Foursquare check-ins to obesity statistics in New York City neighborhoods. What they found: areas with lower obesity rates tended to have more opportunities for social interactions.

“The basic thinking is that social capital, which is the idea that people act in social ways like go to sporting events and eat out together, is actually associated with improved health and fewer lifestyle diseases like obesity and diabetes,” Varshney said.

Their research is novel because it allows for accurate analysis of specific neighborhoods without any of the costs or biases associated with collecting surveys, because the data is collected automatically. The app helps to inform researchers as to what areas have enough social capital and which areas need a higher investment in it.

Bai said it was honor to have received the award, and credited his time at ECE ILLINOIS for helping him develop his interest in research.

Hongyang Bai
Hongyang Bai
Hongyang Bai

According to Varshney, Bai was one of his standout students in his undergraduate Making Sense of Big Data class. Varshney encouraged him to pursue this research that revolved around finding relationships between public health issues and social media.

Varshney said it’s unique for an undergraduate to have received an award for his research, and it is a testament to the quality of the student body at ECE ILLINOIS.

Both Bai and Varshney are interested in continuing to research how social media can be used to assess health. Varshney plans to continue investigating surveillance of lifestyle and infectious diseases. Bai, now a graduate student at Columbia University, is intent on continuing to analyze obesity rates using social media resources.

“I do have interest in working on this research further by expanding the public health from obesity to other issues,” Bai said. “Using the data in other projects and solving some biases we had in the paper could also be my future direction of research.”