Wired and local

UND making a difference in rural America with well-attended Midwest Big Data Hub workshop

North Dakota Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford was a featured speaker for a Midwest Big Data Hub workshop hosted at UND last week. Sanford drew upon his experiences as mayor of Watford City to highlight the importance of research partnerships in creating communities resilient to significant changes.

North Dakota Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford was a featured speaker for a Midwest Big Data Hub workshop hosted at UND last week. Sanford drew upon his experiences as mayor of Watford City to highlight the importance of research partnerships in creating communities resilient to significant changes. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

The University of North Dakota last week hosted a Midwest Big Data Hub (MBDH) workshop focusing on rural communities and Big Data issues. The one-and-a-half-day event included a broad range of politicians, researchers, and community members.

The Smart Cities (Resilient Communities) Workshop was organized by the UND Division of Research at the request of the University of Illinois-based MBDH.

“We’re a partner organization in the Midwest Big Data Hub, an effort by the National Science Foundation to bring together universities and the industrial and business communities to figure out what the long-term data needs are for the country,” said Grant McGimpsey, vice president for research and economic development and dean of the UND School of Graduate Studies.

Why a workshop?

Ed Schafer

Ed Schafer

McGimpsey said he got a call earlier this year directly from MBDH Executive Director Melissa Cragin—who attended last week’s workshop—telling him that the Hub wanted to expand its activities beyond large population centers to focus on rural communities.

“Since UND is a Hub partner and is in a rural state, we were in a good place to host this workshop,” McGimpsey said. “So among the things we were here to find out at this workshop was the connection between big data and community resilience.”

McGimpsey recollected a recent conversation with former UND Interim President Ed Shafer about Shafer’s efforts as a North Dakota governor (1992-2000) to encourage the expansion of the state’s data infrastructure.

“He aimed to make North Dakota a much more wired, connected community,” McGimpsey said. Shafer was one of the principal speakers on the first day of the workshop.

“Big Data fits in a lot of different places,” McGimpsey said, noting, for example, one of the first day panels that focused on the use of epidemiological data to help professionals such as UND’s Professor of Social Work Thomasine Heitkamp.

Mary Wakefield

Mary Wakefield, UND alumna, Devils Lake native and former acting deputy secretary with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, said rural health is a nonpartisan issue, and called for more research and data-based public health policymaking. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

Smart, local, resilient

The workshop’s working title was “Smart, Local, Resilient: Enabling Our Communities through Research Partnerships,” reflecting the primary objective of the gathering attended by about 125 people from UND and several other states.

That theme was underscored by North Dakota Lt. Governor Brent Sanford, former mayor of Watford City (2010-2016). During his mayoral tenure, Sanford saw Watford City expand significantly during the oil boom and supervised major community infrastructure investment, including a new high school, an events center, and airport terminal, plus a new hospital and a law enforcement center.

A key factor in Watford City’s renaissance was to purposefully make the town “a better place for people who wanted to stay,” instead of just accepting the previous long population slide, Sanford said. Part of his education as mayor included taking a truck driver licensing course with current North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

“We have to look deep inside and ask, ‘Why don’t people want to live here?'” Sanford said.

Mary Wakefield took her turn as a keynoter with a positive message about community resilience and rural health. Among her messages, “rural health is a nonpartisan issue.”

The country needs more research- and data-based public health policymaking, noted Wakefield, acting United States Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2015 to 2017 and head of the Health Resources and Services Administration from 2009 to 2015. Wakefield, a Devils Lake native, previously served as director of the Center for Rural Health at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences.

Keeping ahead

“Today, keeping ahead of emerging technologies is the new challenge,” said Shafer, who added that his administration helped many of the state’s communities advance into the Internet age by facilitating easily accessible connectivity following a “city of the future” pilot project in Watford City.

“We used technology to deliver education, health care and economic development,” Shafer said. “Soon the advantages of that program were clear, so we decided to put a high-speed port in every community in North Dakota.”

Shafer’s narrative was followed by East Grand Forks (Minn.) Mayor Steve Gander, who underscored his community’s efforts to expand opportunities for socialization; build financial and economic resilience; and encourage resilient services, such as health care.

Developing “resilience is why we’re here,” Gander said, noting that the local availability of excellent high tech medical care facilitated his son’s recovery from cancer.

Grant McGimpsey, Thomasine Heitkamp, Brent Sanford, Mark Kennedy

From left to right: Grant McGimpsey, Thomasine Heitkamp, Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford and UND President Mark Kennedy. McGimpsey, UND’s Vice President for Research and Economic Development, says the University brings a number of unique research opportunities to the table when it comes to rural health. Image courtesy of Juan Pedraza.

Putting it together

As one of the foremost academic institutions on rural research, UND brings a number of unique social and health research opportunities to the academic community that have global impacts, noted McGimpsey.

He said that the MBDH incubates collaborative partnerships among industry, academic, government and nongovernmental organizations to drive economic development and capacity-building for data practices, policies, standards and applications. The Hub’s Resilient Communities efforts—of which last week’s rural-focused workshop was an example—aim at developing shared knowledge and practices around data and data science for rural communities.

Ultimately, the collaboration between UND and the Hub was about how new technology can affect rural community and social health.

— Juan Miguel Pedraza, UND Division of Research & Economic Development