Data Science: Guelph Family Health Study safely gathers family data

A family standing together with signs and vegetable cut outs in the background.


By Vanessa Virgo

The Guelph Family Health Study (GFHS) exemplifies big data studies being conducted at the University of Guelph and many other institutions. This study has enrolled over 300 families in a multi-year investigation to study family behaviours, nutrition literacy, food skills and other lifestyle factors to prevent child obesity.  

Researchers aim to determine whether early life interactions in different home environments and family behaviours can lead to decreased chance of disease and a sustained change in health behaviours and lifestyle later in life.  

In previous years, the researchers were able to invite families to the University of Guelph to collect some data. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the GFHS had to rely soley on remote methods of data collection.  

The study continued to utilize online surveys to acquire data on diet, stress perception, family environment, and well-being. For anthropometric measurements, the researchers sent scales and tape measures to the parents to take measurements of their children that would have otherwise been collected on campus.  

“This certainly opened our eyes to conducting research in different ways and gave us more of an appreciation for human interaction and connection in research,” says Dr. David Ma, director of the GFHS and a professor in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences.  

A study of this size requires massive data collection and storage. The GFHS collects information for many factors related to obesity and other metabolic diseases. These range from the genetics behind food preferences in children and parenting practices to food preparation skills and healthy eating habits.  

As part of the research, personal and background health information is collected. These data require security measures to maintain the confidentiality of study participants.  

“Privacy is of utmost importance,” says Ma. “People want to know that their information, especially personal information, is secure and being used for its intended purpose.”  

Ma says the study data is protected through the University of Guelph’s computer infrastructure, and developed through consultation with CCS, IT and security experts at the University of Guelph.   

“We want to be proactive about our security,” says Ma. “Even if someone does get into the system, there are layers of security in place such as encryption to deter and protect the sensitive information we’ve collected.”