Real Food Challenge Retreat Write-Up

Written by Chloe Graffeo and Rachel Komich

We arrived at a Unity Lutheran church in Chicago around 1:30 a.m. on Friday, January 23 and promptly sought out any open space on the basement floor to sprawl our sleeping bags for a few hours of rest before morning. Around 8 o’clock we all got up to a gloriously satisfying spread of roasted breakfast potatoes, tofu scramble, sliced honey crisp apples and an array of bagels accompanied by nut butters and honey.

After a few exercises that introduced everyone, we gathered in a small room and sat criss-crossed on the floor for our first leadership workshop. The workshop picked apart the meaning of power, first by taking a look at its most simple definition: “to be able to do”. This means power is not necessarily a man at a podium, but rather people who display small, sometimes unintentional, actions that influence others. These people are called ‘Drivers,’ and are essential to a group working to procure major changes in a system. Next are ‘supporters,’ who participate in events and attend meetings regularly but who do not act in major positions. On the outside are those who are ‘ready,’ or those people who may need more of a push to act and participate but are willing to do so. We also discussed leadership groups who act as a body together, like ethical drivers, visionary drivers, strategic drivers, and task-oriented drivers.

After a lunch of chocolate coffee chili, hearty cornbread, and a salad made from locally sourced lettuce, we went straight into a workshop about the food industry. We learned that seventy percent of campus dining is outsourced and thirty percent of universities are self-operated. Of the seventy percent of universities that outsource campus dining, three major companies control 90% of the business. These companies are Sodexo, Compass Group, and Aramark, and together they make up a 20 billion dollar industry. To put this into perspective, the only industry to make as high of a profit is McDonald’s, and they are about a 28 billion dollar industry. Universities achieve such outrageous profits by requiring students to purchase a meal plan while they live on campus. The consumer is given no choice, and these companies receive guaranteed dollars.

We also learned that the people working directly in the food industry, such as farmers below the poverty line, are the people who deal with the most food insecurity. Essentially, the supply chain works like this: the major food company exists, along with a vendor like Tyson that provides the chicken, and the university that needs the chicken. The major food company receives kickbacks from the vendor, which is money that Tyson sends to ensure they stay on the preferred vendors list. Then, the university sends the major company compliance numbers (paper work that ensures the right amount of everything is sent, etc.) so the major food company sees that everything is under control. Small farmers cannot compete with this sort of financial game as they cannot pay kickbacks. They also suffer from other monetary pressures that come with maintaining a farm, such as equipment and labor. Under capitalism they are involuntarily working against fast food companies, Sodexo, and the GMO industry. All these forces push on the small farmer until he is squished, leaving him unable to pay his workers proper wages and keep up with technological innovations that would improve the farm, which ultimately force him to fold his farm or sell it to a bigger company.

That evening before a dinner, a catered meal of vegan stir fry, steamed rice, and sumptuous chocolate pomegranate chia seed pudding, we participated in a dialogue about oppression. Oppression, as defined in the conference, is a “dynamic where one group of people is seen as less than, is treated as less than, and receives less access to resources historically and over time.” There is interpersonal oppression, institutional oppression, and cultural oppression. One particular part of the discussion that has stuck in our minds is the idea that our food system is not broken; rather, it is a system built on the oppression of other people, particularly slave labor. This is especially important to understand because since the system is not broken, it cannot be fixed. Instead, an entirely new system must be created that emphasizes equality without minimizing individuality. We then discussed how to combat oppression through seven different strategies: a better system can be created by forming an education that does not glorify one group but instead focuses on history as a whole, as well as with self work (creating a greater self-awareness), naming (the elimination of slurs in everyday vocabulary), disruption (protests, rallies, etc.), organizing, ally-ship, and the gathering of communities.

The following morning we were served a warm apple crisp as we delved into the discussion on the Real Food Campus Commitment. Real food is defined by the Real Food Challenge organization as fair trade, ecologically sound (USDA organic and third party verified), local (two hundred and fifty mile radius both farm and distribution), and humane (no high fructose corn syrup, no dyes, no caramel coloring). Our mission as students, then, is the:

  • Implementation of 20% real food by the year 2020
  • Completion of the real food calculator
  • Creation of a Food System’s Working Group of students, staff, food service members, farmers, and community members
  • Institutionalization of a real food policy
  • Creation of a better food education.

Now, in order to get these ideas implemented on campus, we discussed strategies to get the administration on board. We considered mobilizing students, building a coalition, organizing decision makers, and other approaches. This movement needs to be a campaign, not a project. There has to be a target to aim for, a person, such as the president of the university, that we want to take notice of our actions. All the while it is important to create allies, whether they are active or passive, and discourage active or passive opponents.

During the retreat, we got the wonderful opportunity to visit Northwestern University and work with their Real Food Challenge campaign team, acquiring signatures on a petition to give to their President. We found that almost every person we got the opportunity to explain the idea of the challenge to was more than willing to sign the petition. As a whole, we managed to garner nearly 350 signatures during the hour we spent outside. The field trip gave us hope that this radical movement can be accomplished.

Once back at the church we were greeted with the aroma of coconut butternut squash soup. A big pot full was steaming on the counter beckoning our ladles. We topped our bowls with roasted squash seeds and scraped the remnants of the soup up with delicious bread. We discussed our time at Northwestern during dinner, reaffirming our excited suspicions that change was among us.   We said goodbye to our new friends and squeezed our bodies into the small white car we borrowed from the university. Our bellies were content along with our spirits, for we now knew what needed to be done, how to approach it, plan it and attack it so we could tear down the previous food system and carefully build it back up the Real way, with whole, hearty, ethical foods for everyone to enjoy.

Special thanks to the Voinovich School, the Office of Sustainability and the Food Studies Curricular Theme for funding and supporting Food Matters on our way toward creating this coalition at Ohio University.

Nation to Nation

By: Alaina Morman

When I say I traveled around the world and back, I’m not exaggerating. The summer of 2014 will go down as one in which I learned the most about the world and about myself. It’s comical in a way how four months can put four-plus years of higher education to shame. Or rather, I should say, one might think they’ve grasped the workings of the world—until they travel abroad and realize there is so much more to learn by experiencing cultures in situ.

This summer I was fortunate enough to experience the cultures of Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Crow Nation.

My journey began with the Balkans study abroad trip hosted by Ohio University and facilitated by International Peace Park Expeditions. The purpose of the Balkans trip was to study cross border collaboration efforts among Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo with regards to environmental peacebuilding. Environmental peacebuilding is a frame through which to analyze the environmental predicament of a certain region and assess how strategic moves can be made to aid in the development of peace and stability, rather than the escalation of conflict.

As one of the last biodiversity hotspot in Europe, the tri-country region is teeming with breathtaking landscapes which are home to a host of unique flora and fauna. From these former Soviet bloc nations—a region recovering from a decade old civil war and emerging from over 60 years of communism—stakeholders are finding ways to communicate and support each other and their local communities in order to protect the environment. Entrepreneurship opportunities, many centered around ecotourism, are providing an alternative model for sustainable development and livelihood creation, especially in rural areas that have historically been neglected. From national parks to mountaineering clubs to environmental education non-profits, everyone has a stake in preserving the integrity of the landscape.

The adventure was complemented by vigorous hikes, warm hospitality, and eye-opening experiences. One such experience was seeing numerous historic bunkers and learning how a bunker architect was selected (suffice it to say it was not through a typical application process). I also got to savor many delectable traditional dishes, such as a number of different burek recipes. The food is one main reason I would recommend going and one that keeps me wanting to go back as soon as possible.

Immediately upon landing back in the States, I jumped in my car and headed cross country to Crow Agency in southeastern Montana to begin my Student Conservation Association (SCA) position with Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (LIBI) as the cultural resources intern. For someone who has been interested in Native American studies since starting college, this was a dream. LIBI is located in the heart of Crow Agency, the area designated by the United States federal government for the Apsáalooke (the word for crow in the traditional language) people. In addition, the Northern Cheyenne reservation is to the northeast of LIBI. Early in my internship I had the opportunity to attend an activist gathering in Northern Cheyenne territory working to raise awareness of a proposed coal mine that would compromise Otter Creek, a sacred site and local water source.

Environmental justice issues like Otter Creek are the focus of my thesis research. I am researching the effectiveness of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) through a postcolonial lens and my target population includes native peoples of North America. The UNDRIP has numerous articles addressing the environmental rights of indigenous peoples, but the jury is still out as to whether or not these articles can be used successfully in remedying environmental injustices. Attending the Northern Cheyenne gathering helped me begin to understand the issues tribes face and establish relationships with people who will be critical to my research.

Among the most exciting events of my internship was the 138th Anniversary of the battle and the rededication of the Indian Memorial. The day, filled with events from sunrise to sunset, is the most important for LIBI and for the Native American tribes which fought in the battle. I designed a site bulletin for the Indian Memorial, and am honored to have had the opportunity to highlight it for such a special event. Additionally, I worked on some interesting projects with LIBI’s museum curator and in-house archeologist. The National Park Service is often undervalued in terms of all that it does for American society—there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes to educate and preserve our natural and cultural heritage.

The events of the summer made me realize how much I still have to learn. I implore you to be a lifelong learner, as the path to learning is full of adventure. Whether you go abroad or to the other side of the country, I encourage you to wander outside of your comfort zone and off the beaten path. These trips comprised the first serious travel I have ever done and now I do not want to stop. I hope everyone, at some point in their life, gets bitten by the travel bug.

A Hands-On Approach to Appalachian Biodiversity

By: Mathew Roberts

Excursions deep into the mountains and hollers of western North Carolina are not often associated with interdisciplinary adventure and personal growth, or are they? This summer, Ohio University faculty and staff created a course titled “Agroecology and Biocultural Diversity.”

The course was designed with interaction as a core concept. Students began with a basic history of Appalachia, domestication of species and seeds, and how culinary inclusion works as the lifeblood for building biological diversity and forest economy. Then, students embarked on a three-day trip with James Veteto, professor at Western Carolina University and executive director of the Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies. Veteto led the group through his North Carolina mountainside property, demonstrated the cultural diversity of his apple orchard, revealed time-honored Cherokee customs, and graciously fed the group with the fresh, local flavors of Southern Appalachia.

Appalachian culture has largely been built around poverty. Rugged forms of survival and community agriculture have been prevalent for decades, but these are now seen within the assemblage of naturalist appreciation.

“There is a certain humility and down-to-earthness necessary if you want to get anything done in the region,” Veteto wrote in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. While most class discussions focused on the history of farming, seed saving, and the cultural relevance of food, the greatest moments were spent reflecting about how these lessons can be applied to other issues as well.

Karly Strukamp, an undergraduate education student who took the summer course, will apply the knowledge gained on this trip to her work with middle school children.

“From this trip, I have gained confidence in facilitating these types of hands-on learning experiences,” she said. “When students are able to investigate what they are curious about, they are experiencing true learning.”

There also were more immediate lessons to be learned.

“We also were able to get to some of what us teachers like to call the ‘hidden curriculum,’” Strukamp said. “We were able to tell stories and invest time in our relationships — even with our teachers. At times, our teachers would acknowledge that we were actually teaching them something.”

Immersive learning and exploring one’s curiosity are inherent to this course. There is something beautiful about being right in the focal point of diversity’s potential.

“We were able to look at and touch the different plants and methods we were being introduced to rather than just seeing pictures in a book,” said Taylor Smith, another student who attended. “Environmental issues can be looked at from so many sides and it’s really great to have all those different views when you are talking about sustainable solutions.”

Going to the Appalachian Institute of Mountain Studies made us realize the lack of diversity in our hometowns. Upon return, many students spent the last two days of the course at Solid Ground Farm, a sustainable farm in Millfield dedicated to spreading knowledge about sustainable food and creating biodiverse forest gardens in the southeast Ohio. In addition to developing environmental solutions, spots like Solid Ground Farm are creating a new generation that values diversity. After the farm visit, students finished the course with a project or paper that incorporated the multi-disciplinary nature of the trip. As long as this program continues, Ohio University can be a part of instilling this critical value in future cadres of students.


Understanding the North Korean Human Rights Abuses and Moving Forward

By: Jim Blazey

On February 17, the United Nations released the most recent report  on human rights abuses occurring in North Korea. The report covered the starvation, violence, mistrust and exhaustion that occur within North Korean labor camps. The prisoners in these facilities range from South Korean soldiers and their descendants to people who have spoken out against the ruling Kim family or the government as a whole.

In addition, severe droughts in the 1990s coupled with the absence of Soviet-subsidized goods caused the North Korean economy to collapse and malnutrition to expand throughout the country.

This led me to consider: how can NGOs or governments possibly provide relief to individuals within these camps when they don’t have any access? How can these organizations provide food to individuals within the country while also creating opportunities for North Koreans to become self-sustaining? If I, the public manager of a nonprofit or government agency, am trying to consider the proper strategy to deliver value to these individuals, how can I make an influence on a country where the government is very suspicious of the outside world?

The seminar in Public Administration (MPA 6800) taught by Marsha Lewis at the Voinovich School helped me develop a strategy when tackling complex issues such as providing humanitarian aid to countries like North Korea. We discussed public value chain, a model that identifies the partners and co-producers in a situation, as well as the necessary inputs to solving a problem.

The example used in class was the Gates Foundation and its attempt to decrease malaria in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia. The partners the Gates Foundation sought were humanitarian groups in these countries, the manufacturers of mosquito nets, and volunteers. The inputs were the mosquito nets and malaria vaccines. The combination of the partners and the inputs leads to measurable outputs, such as reduced cases of malaria. After the output is measured, the long-term outcomes would be a healthier and more productive society.

So how does this model apply to North Korea?

In the case of alleviating the malnourishment that plagues North Korea, the right partner is China. If organizations collaborate with China to put pressure on North Korea, more aid can be provided to vulnerable citizens in the country. An example of this pressure is China not vetoing any proceedings of the U.N. Security Council on North Korea in March.

Successful implementation of smaller goals like this can then be used to assess how NGOs or agencies should proceed with long-term goals, such as laying the foundation for sustainable food sources that the country and eliminating the labor camps. This leads me to the last part of the public value chain: evaluating external environmental influences.

The external political influences are plentiful in the case of North Korea. The United States and North Korea have a contentious relationship, which could affect the way a U.S. organization works within the country. American NGOs and agencies are not alone in their concern about the humanitarian crisis in North Korea; China, Japan, South Korea and Russia are all interested as well. Another political influence is the provocative nature of the North Korean government itself. All of these factors must be considered

Issues regarding North Korea are not easy to solve. Public managers have to develop strategies to help their organizations successfully deliver value. Future public managers must be innovative, ambitious and willing to change the world for the better. No matter how daunting the task, the long-term positive outcomes will be well worth the effort in the end.

More information here:

Making Connections

By: Mat Roberts

As a student of the Kanawha project, a grant-funding initiative to advance carbon neutrality through the facilitation of climate literacy, I feel fortunate to be a part of pushing environmental dialogue into the classroom. Most of the Kanawha consists of faculty, some from other branches, seeking to add climate change context into their syllabi. As one of six students, our job is to share what we know to the professors and to be the student perspective in decision-making.

The great part about this community is the opportunity we all have to share distinct perspectives on climate change. I am the editor of College Green Magazine, an independent online publication dedicated to bringing the most provocative and engaging environmental news. I met many professors during the first Kanawha gathering who were interested in the vision I have for College Green Magazine in the future: bringing about greater awareness of climate change and showing how to live a sustainable life. At the time, the main problem was finding enough staff members to produce a viable media product and I expressed this concern deeply. The fact is, understanding climate change language is difficult.

Excited as I was to talk to these professors, I am pleased to say the response to my passion excited me even more. Craig Meyer, professor of rhetorical English, reached out to me beyond the Kanawha project to develop a project of his own in his current writing in environmental sustainability class. The students in his class, as part of a large portion of their grade, will be producing content for College Green Magazine.

The goal is to create an incentive to take this course, not only because students can learn more about climate change through the efforts of Craig’s participation in the Kanawha project, but can also leave with a valuable portfolio piece published in a student-led environmental publication. In return, I have been receiving new ideas each day. Some students will be working on a series of articles to turn in weekly, while others will choose to create a much larger product for the magazine. Because the students feel like they are part of something bigger than their grade point average, I feel like making connections like this is part of the solution towards improving climate change literacy.

My main goal would be to have this partnership in every ENG3100J course at Ohio University. With the partnership, creating content becomes a stress of the past. With all of the saved time, I envision College Green Magazine providing services to further enhance interest in environmental studies such as a comprehensive jobs and internships board, a research resources page connected with the Alden library databases, and a shared student and community eco-events calendar. All of this to say: if you have an idea for the common good, do not ever give up.


What Kind of Manager Will You Be?

By: L Volpe

I was asked the other day about the quote “Silence Is Exhausting” (Robyn Ochs) that closes all of my e-mail communications. As I launched into my explanation — that every person, no matter who they are, deserves to be heard, taken seriously and treated with respect — I found it to be a wonderful representation of what my education and master’s degree from the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs means to me.

Through all of my classes I have taken in the MPA program, my professors have stressed the responsibility we are taking on by becoming leaders in the public/nonprofit sector.  The roles that we will be stepping into have the potential to make a difference in a significant number of peoples’ lives.  We are giving a voice to individuals who may not have one.  Keeping in mind that “Silence is Exhausting,” we need to make intelligent and productive decisions that create public value.

I feel that this type of training is going to be an asset for us as we apply for jobs.  Anyone can step into a managerial role, but the MPA program is setting us up to be progressive managers who will push the public/nonprofit sector forward.  Remembering “Silence is Exhausting” is what makes me passionate about the mission of the organizations I am interviewing for and the difference I can make by performing my job to the best of my abilities.

I continue to be surprised by how much I have learned and grown through my experiences at the Voinovich School. The School has pushed me out of my comfort zone in my classes and given me the opportunity to gain practical experience as an intern with a number of organizations in the Athens area.  Taking a step back and seeing the difference that I have the potential to make in the public sector or a nonprofit organization empowers me to be the manager who gives people a voice and helps lessen the burden — the exhaustion — of silence in our communities.

GMOs and Bitter Seeds

By: Mat Roberts

On Wednesday, Jan. 29, at 7 p.m., the Athena Cinema will screen Bitter Seeds, the final film in Micha X. Peled’s Globalization Trilogy, following Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town and China Blue. Before you see this film, let’s look at the seed.

Once the flagship node of the world’s biodiversity realm, the seed has been forced to a place of manipulation and modification. Back in the day, farmers would save seeds from the summer harvest and prepare to fill their greenhouses upon the first trickle of spring. Though this traditional practice is still used across the globe, we have seen some wild changes to agriculture. The current globalized agriculture system, in partnership with many bio-engineering firms, is changing the definition of food, and many people are starting to get worried.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are changing the way food is grown.  Traditionally, farmers used natural breeding to achieve desired traits. According to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), GMOs are created by shooting genes from a “gene gun” into a plate of cells or by using bacteria to invade the cell with foreign DNA. The altered cell is then cloned into a plant. These genetically modified crops demand heavy use of pesticides and herbicides. This degrades the soil, thus producing a necessary cycle of creating stronger breeds of seeds capable of succeeding in a space nearly void of any other life.

As the industrial agriculture system continues to grow, the farther we seem to be from our evolutionary roots. Small-scale farmers around the globe are being forced to grow GMO crops or perish in the effort to keep up with the production of large-scale farms and the demands of grocers.

Some argue that genetic modification feeds the world and is able to adapt to climate change. Some argue that a switch to small-scale operation organic farming will reduce carbon emissions and the degradation of conventional farming, and reshape the American economy to a resilient state. Regardless of what side of the argument one falls on, we still need food. The point I want to make goes beyond the debate. Genetically modified foods were introduced into processed foods at least 15 years ago. The fact that we are living experiments for a new form of food is true, but there is another issue at hand: the loss of diversity.

The loss is what troubles me. I’m an organic consumer (primarily), but understanding the dynamics of biodiversity touches me on a whole new level of my personal values and beliefs. When Janisse Ray, advocate for a seed-saving revolution, visited Ohio University last semester, I was heartbroken to hear the truth. Ray noted in her book that big agriculture business operates with a 94 percent reduction in seed diversity compared to traditional farming methods. We have already lost so many seeds our Earth accepted into its soils and ecosystems.

The need for a conversation about food has never been more urgent.

Come learn more about how GMOs are affecting our world by watching Bitter Seeds. Admission is free.

More information on GMOs here:

Balancing on the Run

By: Emily Burns

I’ve never paid much attention to my astrological sign or the corresponding horoscopes. But, as I reflect on my first semester as a graduate student in the Voinovich School and look ahead to spring semester, I can’t help but feel thankful that I’m a Libra. The mystical scales that serve as the symbol of Libra are thought to evoke a sense of balance, harmony and peace.

I’ve often heard it said that school of any type is a balancing act, and I think that holds especially true for graduate studies. I find myself juggling quite a few responsibilities at the moment: working as a graduate assistant for the university, applying for summer internships, training. for the Athens Marathon, and last but certainly not least, attending actual classes

Sometimes I have trouble falling asleep at night with so many questions about my future near and far unanswered, but herein lies one of the main reasons I love to run:  It’s exhausting.

The main reasons I’ve put my adult life on hold for another two years is to learn, to go to class, to do homework and readings and write papers in the hope of understanding how to manage people, resources and expectations in the public sector. Still, there is nothing better than coming home after a long run, eating my body weight in peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches and succumbing to the kind of whole-body tired you can achieve only by running farther than you did the day before.  Waking up with sore legs is just an added bonus.

Finishing my first marathon is still one of the proudest moments of my life, and I imagine walking across the graduation stage with my classmates from the Voinovich School will be up there as well. Whenever the going gets rough and the scales seem imbalanced, there is immeasurable comfort in knowing that I can always go for a run and leave some of my problems with the pavement.

What Is Your Baggage?

By: L Volpe

I cannot believe it is already my last semester in graduate school. It feels like yesterday that I unpacked my life into my little rundown apartment over the sleazy local bar, and now I am getting ready to enter the real world again! I left a less-than-ideal work environment when I came to the Voinovich School, so I have some anxiety about what this new experience will entail.

During the first week in my Seminar Class with Dr. Marsha Lewis, she talked about how, upon entering our organization of choice after graduation, each of us will be carrying baggage from previous dealings with co-workers, events at their current organization, and past personal experiences.  This insight gave me a whole new perspective on workplace relationships.

Throughout my classes in the Voinovich School MPA program, we have talked a lot about being self-reflective and how important it is to learn from our successes and failures.  When Dr. Lewis brought up baggage, I realized that being self-reflective isn’t enough.  I not only need to understand my mistakes and how I would react to situations differently, but also ensure that my baggage or previous missteps do not dampen my future success.

When I came to the Voinovich School. I just had left a highly competitive and hostile working environment.  Because I was in this experience for more than three years, I brought that hyper-intensive attitude to my classes and came off as abrasive.  Through working with my mentor, Dr. Millesen, and experiencing many positive growths in the MPA program, I have been able to let go of that baggage and see the difference in environments, allowing me to gauge my reactions better.

I am also more aware of other people’s reactions to different situations.  In any event in the workplace, my previous exposures may lead to one reaction while my neighbor has a completely opposite one.  Being patient and having open communication with your co-workers is imperative to a successful work environment.  So keep in mind that everyone carries different baggage, and that we need to be respectful of everyone’s reactions to situations that arise, good and bad.

Big Data: The Heroine?

By: Mathew Roberts

The CE3 Brown Bag lunch series is coming to a close for the fall semester. CE3 Director Scott Miller and I have been brainstorming who would lead the talks in the spring and further build dialogue among students, faculty, and researchers. This past Friday, I finally found an open time to stumble into the multidimensional world of big data and how it plays out in environmentally related discourse.

Dr. Ani Ruhil, associate professor and associate director of Research and Graduate Programs, spoke at the CE3 Brown Bag lunch series last fall. He amazed me with his talk about the mass amounts of information the digital world has captured.

What I gained in this short lecture is how this discipline takes form as both risk and opportunity.  This world of cloud computing and storage, analytical predication, and coded language is historically unprecedented. Big data has done what journalism may have intended to do from birth: record man’s deeds and be the keeper of his conscience.

The total amount of information in existence is equal to roughly 1.2 zettabytes (or over 1.3 trillion gigabytes [1] ). Our everyday lives revolve around shuffling megabytes and gigabytes across borders and boundaries. The concept of all digital information as a real measurement is astounding.


Big data is increasingly important in the economy. Big players such as Google and Facebook make their fortunes by accumulating, analyzing, and selling users’ data, much like an investment broker does with stocks on Wall Street.

Big data is integrated into my own work as well. As a CE3 Undergraduate Research Scholar, I have had the great opportunity to explore data on Ohio’s competitiveness in energy production and restoration of local watersheds from acid mine drainage. Journalists are highly dependent on statistics and figures of national and local governments’ regulations, policies, and procedures. They take big data to convey messages in understanding the environmental impacts and how it can be taken to foster sustainable action. In my previous work in creative advertising, big data offered a way to pinpoint markets, test effectiveness, and share marketing research in an effort to create an advertising campaign for national and international brands. In the end, big data is all about predicting behaviors and translating data through analytical tools.

In today’s culture, data is being used to convey points, connect links and inform in the face of great political debate. The product of this initiative has manifested into “data visualization” and it’s becoming widely popular.

This analysis can be used to create a better tomorrow — for example, by saving thousands of lives by improving healthcare. But it also can create uneven distributions of power when people, corporations, or agencies begin looking in places they should not.

Which brings us back to environmental issues. I bring this up because of the irreversibility and costs of using data the wrong way. If we accidently mine too much coal or drill too many wells and create a bigger cost in cleaning up water, we will need more data and money to clean up what more data and more money created in the first place.

Dr. Ruhil believes the future of analytics lies in the hands of the public and grabbing on to hope for much needed social changes. One such innovation is Kaggle. Founded in April 2010, Kaggle is “a platform for data prediction competitions. Companies, organizations and researchers post their large files of raw data only to have it sifted and molded into the world’s best data-mined models.” Because the big data players will ignore rural governments and their communities, “there is an opportunity to make a change for the better by putting your brains to work,” Ruhil said.

Although these ethical questions need more time, public debate, and consideration, we can always find hope in further data innovation despite the dual pulls of fear and opportunity.

Data innovation is especially exciting for students across the globe. Born into the world of computers, the next generation of learners will face the same ethical and logistical questions that we see today. Are you up for the challenge?