So this blog launches as part of a Spring 2024 (S’24) semester University of Miami (UM) School of Communication (SoC) journalism independent study (JMM699). For those who don’t know me, it will be enlightening for you to learn that I find no small pleasure in christening this inaugural post with all those acronyms.
The semester’s overarching purpose is clear: develop an ambitious data visualization (“data viz”) project. The specific aims to achieve this purpose are delineated as such:
– develop the project by learning and implementing a new data viz skill
– support the project and skill acquisition via readings
– document the process (via this blog)
My project will pertain to visualization of spatial-temporal pattern of disclosed (self-report) illicit substance use in people who acquired paralysis from a traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI) in the United States between 2016 and 2023.
Seem kinda niche? Well that’s because it is. The dropdown explains why (or skip the deep dive)…
I work at a neuroscientific center of excellence called The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a joint-venture of the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine Department of Neurological Surgery and a milieu of other groups (Neurology, Physiatry, Cell Bio, Pharm/Immunology, Biophysics, College of Engineering, School of Public Health… the list goes on). As The Miami Project’s (TMP’s) director of education and outreach, I play an indirect role in all of our clinical trials and in doing so interface with a diverse range of stakeholders. This has privileged me face-to-face interaction with every kind of agent in this arena, and trained me on thousands of hours of experiential and intellectual information. Through these interactions I’ve been put on the scent of a recent phenomenon: the grass-roots emergence of an interest (and in some cases a practice) in the use of so-called psychedelic substances in the management of various co-morbitidies of SCI, both psychiatric and (importantly) non-psychiatric. Appreciate that in the general population, those of us who are neurologically intact, there are no non-psychiatric indications for the class of serotonergic psychedelic substances such as psilocybin (a tryptamine), as recently acknowledged by the FDA. Paralysis from neurotrauma such as SCI and traumatic brain injury (TBI) represent some of the first and few potential indications where these substances might have non-psychiatric, even somatic, therapeutic application. A recent invited blog post I authored summarizes the current state of scientific knowledge on population-specific risks and rewards in SCI.
Now it is my job to generate (or in this case, forage) data, organize and analyze it in manner that will turn it into evidence, and draw conclusions from it that will be scientifically and legally binding. I’m accustomed to producing my own data, but the federal Schedule 1 substance licenses and FDA investigational drug exemptions, much less local IRB approvals, to do work in this space will require time. So for this project I rely on the scientific labor of others: the Spinal Cord Injury Model Systems (SCIMS) Centers that are a network of the premiere physician-science facilities for SCI in the United States. Together the SCIMS contribute to what we know as SCI demography via the amalgamation of their inputs to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Centers (NSCISC). We (the University of Miami) happen to be one such center, and accordingly can make “data requests” from the NSCISC for data beyond that made publically available in the annual report. My colleagues and I have recently made a request for data pertaining to illicit substance use patterns starting in the year 2016 (to 2023). One of the collaborators on this project is part of what she termed the “GeoSCI” dataset, technically the SCIMS-Environmental Factors Datasets (SCIMS-EFD), that allows for a geospatial dimension of analysis to be applied to SCIMS data.
I am confident in my data visualization abilities for certain kinds of charts, but cartography is one area where I have less training and experience. The convergence of this SCIMS illicit substance use project with the geospatial SCIMS-EFD dataset seems a serendipitous opportunity to acquire geospatial visualization skill(s) and apply them to a consequential scientific project.
The first (text) book I will be reading in pursuit of this new data viz skill is Sulcom’s Thematic Cartography and Geovisualization, 4th ed.