Mapping a Path to Health

Ohio State’s GIS Librarian helps researchers make strides in the public health field

Josh Sadvari stands in front of a whiteboard showing a projection of several maps of the United States. He is using a red marker to annotate the maps.

Through the use of geographic information systems (GIS), Josh Sadvari is helping researchers at The Ohio State University make important breakthroughs in the public health field.

“I joined University Libraries in 2014 as the Research Commons Program Manager and GIS Specialist,” says Sadvari. “I was attracted to the position because of its focus on supporting the advanced research needs of graduate students in particular, having been a graduate student at Ohio State myself.”

Having earned a Master’s degree in Geographic Information Science during his time in that role, Sadvari leapt at the opportunity to become University Libraries’ Geospatial Information Librarian.

“When the opportunity arose to apply for the position, I jumped at it knowing that it would be a great way for me to continue to engage with and support Ohio State researchers in an emerging and exciting area of academic librarianship,” says Sadvari.

Now, Sadvari is using his expertise to help Ohio State researchers tackle public health challenges from suicide prevention to the opioid epidemic and emerging research into COVID-19.

“I work with researchers from across the entire university and at every level of experience, from those trying to understand what GIS is and how they might use it to leading experts who might just be looking for some input on finding or sharing a geospatial dataset,” says Sadvari. “I will most often partner with researchers as a consultant on their projects, helping them to get started and providing guidance along the way as needed. In some cases, I will directly collaborate on a project, helping to prepare data, carry out an analysis or make a map.”

One such partner was Danielle Steelesmith, a postdoctoral fellow at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center studying suicide rates and approaches to prevention.

“I looked at variation in suicide rates across the nation and county-level factors associated with those rates from 2001 through 2016,” says Steelesmith. “Josh was able to identify the data sources the university had access to along with variables that were related to ones I was looking for. He then provided me with the data and met with me to show me how to geocode the data he provided to the county level.”

“Working with Josh allowed me to include additional important variables in my study that I would not otherwise have been able to use,” she says. “Josh and the Research Commons have provided me with additional skills and resources to help broaden the scope of my research. Some of the analyses I completed had never been done previously due to a lack of data on those topics.”

“I think people should know what a valuable resource this is,” says Steelesmith. “You don’t have to be an expert or really know anything about geospatial analysis, and they are available to help you learn and teach you how to use the products that are available.”

Dr. Ayaz Hyder, assistant professor at the College of Public Health, echoes Steelesmith’s sentiments about working with Sadvari.

“Josh was really instrumental in helping us figure out what data holdings Ohio State has access to, what some of the requirements or restrictions are, the quality of the data and where the documentation exists,” says Hyder. “He was also very instrumental in being able to access those data.”

Hyder’s current research began in March and focuses on modeling scenarios related to COVID-19 for local and regional health departments.

“The purpose of those models was really to help the local health departments, to give them an idea of what the impact would be if they did this versus that,” says Hyder. “If they reopened schools versus kept them closed for a little bit longer, what would the outbreak look like? Where would it spread? Who would it infect? And then we transitioned that work to the state of Ohio, where they wanted to know, if we reopened daycares or summer camps in this way or that way, what would happen?”

Hyder says that Sadvari’s GIS expertise made these important data simulations possible.

“These agent-based models are very data-hungry. The best way to think about them is that they are a synthetic population based on data – very local data, very spatially-focused data – that are then represented inside a computer,” says Hyder. “The part that Josh really helped with was finding workplace data, because what they wanted us to model was changing by the day. As soon as we learned about what they wanted to do, we had to ask, ‘Okay, where do we get the data from?’ The state didn’t know, but Josh knew where it was. Then we’d take that back to the state and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we can do because we have this data.’”

Hyder also praises Sadvari’s ability to make connections among researchers.

“He was really helpful that way, because he was getting similar requests from other people. I think he went above and beyond in helping people make researcher-to-researcher connections,” says Hyder. “I’m hoping this is how things will work in the future, bringing things together like this. And I think Josh will be a big part of that.”

For Sadvari, partnering with Ohio State researchers like Hyder and Steelesmith is one of the most exciting aspects of his job.

“There are so many researchers across Ohio State that are benefiting from integrating a geographic perspective, perhaps to approach their research questions in a new way,” he says. “I love working with researchers just starting down this path to help brainstorm how they can scope and then approach their research questions, to connect them with relevant information to get started, and to provide more advanced assistance with employing particular methods or tools as they dive deeper into their projects.”

“I am constantly learning,” says Sadvari. “I help faculty and students from across the entire university who are using geospatial methods and technologies in their work. Not only do I get to continue developing my understanding of how a geographic perspective can add value to these different subject areas, but I get to learn about the interesting and innovative research happening across Ohio State. It’s very rewarding to have a direct opportunity to see how my work has made an impact on a researcher’s success. I get a sneak peek into the great things that lie ahead as they embark on the next step of their careers.”

For more information about GIS and mapping expertise available through University Libraries, please visit the Research Commons website.