University of Virginia: As Nova Booms, UVA Biocomplexity Institute Works To Support Community’s Well-Being

Alongside the Potomac River and a few miles down the road from the University of Virginia Biocomplexity Institute’s offices in Arlington, construction is underway on Amazon’s new and second corporate headquarters, known as “HQ2” – a complex that includes among other things, three 22-story office buildings, retail space and a public park, and a snazzy, unique structure dubbed “The Helix.”

While the arrival of Amazon HQ2 likely will be an economic boon for Northern Virginia – where the company expects to deliver an influx of 25,000 new and thousands more indirect jobs in the next decade – it potentially poses long-term consequences on the well-being of communities in the Washington metropolitan region.

While Amazon tackles the science of fulfillment and delivery, the Biocomplexity Institute research division that neighbors the future Amazon HQ2 tackles the science of all data. Its work supports the public good and informs policymakers on societal issues.

Of particular concern to the team, and magnified by Amazon HQ2, are challenges of food insecurity, equity, climate change and lack of affordable housing. The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily alleviated some problems, such as traffic congestion, but has highlighted longstanding inequities in the local and regional systems, with sharp differences in health and mortality between demographic groups.

These challenges have become central to research led by the institute, which seeks to develop a “Social Impact Data Commons” to help to inform equitable and sustainable growth, a critical issue for a region where more than 5.5 million people already live and where strong growth is expected over the next 25 years.

A data commons is an open, curated knowledge repository that co-locates data from various sources, including public datasets, administrative records and private sources focused on the region, with analytic tools designed to track issues over time and geography; and allows governments and community stakeholders to continuously learn from their own data and put it to use toward making critical decisions.

Sallie Keller, distinguished professor in biocomplexity and director of the institute’s Social and Decision Analytics Division, and Aaron Schroeder, research associate professor in the Biocomplexity Institute, are co-leading the interdisciplinary research team responsible for creating the innovative tools that will be useful in making decisions that affect the public.

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