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New Horizons: The Promise of Data for Nonprofits

New Horizons is our occasional series on trends, discoveries, and tips for nonprofits.

When researchers put out a call for subjects to participate in a new health study in Reno, Nevada, last year, 10,000 citizens responded within 48 hours, boosting the first-ever study to combine environmental, genetic, social, and clinical data to help communities prepare for and solve problems. The effort promises to change the way nonprofits, healthcare organizations, and governments plan and work by discovering connections among the four types of data.

“For instance, what is the connection between ozone levels and hospital admissions for atrial fibrillation?” Anthony Slonim, MD, one of the founders of the project, posits. “Why do admissions spike?” Understanding what constitutes a threat and where threats to health are starting to build—perhaps in the form of poverty, crime, air pollution, water contamination, or scores of other stressors—will help organizations take preventive action, plan for appropriate interventions and staffing, and lead to comprehensive solutions.

The project is a collaboration involving Desert Research Institute, which has expertise in environmental data; Renown Health, Reno’s only locally-governed, nonprofit healthcare system, led by Slonim; and 23andMe, a genetics company, which provided DNA testing for all 10,000 volunteers. Although Nevada’s governor was the first to contribute his DNA to the project and the subject pool is confined to Nevada, researchers see implications for communities around the world. The Nevada data offer a diversity that makes the work particularly applicable: five years of health records for 360,000 individuals; the DNA samples from multi-generational families, pairs of twins, rural citizens, urbanites, and multiple ethnic groups; and a wealth of social and economic data.

“People all want the same thing. They want to be healthy, to have a nice home, to have their children safe and successful,” notes Slonim. Data may prove to be the most effective tool in recent history.