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An Untold Story: How GIS is Transforming Federal Health Programs

For centuries, people have used mapping to chart trends and patterns. One great example is John Snow’s 1854 cholera map, which is an early example of how to leverage GIS in the health field. On August 31, 1854, the London district of Soho was struck with a cholera outbreak. By September 10, 500 people had already fell victim to the outbreak. Snow began to collect data, asking residents about the deaths and mapping the fatalities. Ultimately, John deduced that the source of the outbreak was a contaminated water pump. City officials replaced the pump and the outbreak was stopped. By clustering his data, Snow was able to visualize the outbreak and help officials make an informed decision, saving countless lives.

Snow’s use of geography transformed the health world. And today, the health world has benefited greatly from leveraging GIS. Yet, the health community still faces many challenges to truly embrace GIS. “One of the challenges is perception, traditionally GIS has been used for land management, parcels, for environmental things, and not necessarily for health,” said Laura McNulty, Manager, National Government Health and Sciences Team at Esri.

To help overcome those perceptions, health and GIS is part of the upcoming Esri Federal GIS Conference. The event is a two-day event, with the third day being the first ever Esri DC Developer Summit. The conference will also feature five immersion summits, educating the government community on the power of GIS. The immersion summits will focus on national security, natural resource management, transportation and economic development, and global aid, development and conservation and the focus of this article, health and human services. Be sure to register for the conference here. Additionally, the Federal GIS Conference is free to all federal employees, NPOs, NGOs, and international organizations.

GIS and health is a fascinating story, as GIS provides the platform to drive new insights, analyze trends and provide greater awareness to health providers. For health administrators, geography often becomes the common denominator for health issues. “When you think about health, it’s very much a local problem, and taken care of locally. When you look at health from a federal perspective, the focus is what kind of programs and resources can we deliver down to the local area. GIS is going to help address local problems, and then allow the federal government to measure the effectiveness programs,” said McNulty.

At the federal level, consumers of GIS often include planners, analysts, epidemiologist, executives, grant managers, facility and rural property managers, and emergency manners. For these professionals, GIS is playing a critical role in how services are delivered. The focus is to provide increased insights on how GIS is transforming how agencies understand and use data. “There’s tons and tons of health data, its what do I do with it? How do I bring it to action? How do I use that to inform policies and to make better decisions? That’s really where GIS comes into play,” said McNulty. With GIS, health administrators can create compelling stories about communities to need and measure the effectiveness of programs. Some examples include:

  • Federal grant administrators can use GIS to assess applications, and know best ways to distribute limited funds to high need communities.
  • Federally funded programs can be monitored for effectiveness using GIS, mapping outcomes and year-to-year comparisons to explore effectiveness.
  • Monitor disease and outbreaks, like the John Snow example

As GIS has driven deeper into agencies, and there are new kinds of GIS users emerging, in some cases, GIS users may not even be aware they are using GIS. This is evidence that it is part of human nature to visualize information, especially in a world with data growing at a meteoric rate. “Most of our customers are GIS savvy, but as of late, what we are finding is that many people are interested in maps and the visualization aspect. They want to look at patterns, relationships, things they can’t necessarily see in a spreadsheet,” said McNulty. Flora Vale, Solution Engineer at Esri's DC Technology Center, focused primarily on Health and Spatial Analysis, adds, “Now, more than ever, mapping has started to come up in the minds of everyone, now you don't need to be a GIS professional to make your own maps.”

Within these kinds of programs, governments can start addressing complex health issues and problems. Agencies can look at change over time through geography. This allows agencies to conduct an analysis and learn how a program has impacted a community.

Although GIS provides the opportunity for beautiful visualizations, the important element is being able to conduct an analysis of the data. As Flora Vale said, “Analysis is really important. Health is really a function of location: where people are, culture, demographics, environment and then of course policy. Once we have all these overlapping situations, we can actually start to find patterns, trends and correlations, we can even run spatial regression analysis.” As Vale has observed, GIS does not only provide value to where things are, but helps users to conduct an analysis of why trends are occurring. The powerful nature of the software is absolutely true, but the human element of conducting spatial analysis is essential to fully leverage the power of GIS.

GIS has shown to have applications across any government vertical, as nearly every element of government has a geographic component. Yet, leveraging GIS for federal health initiatives does present unique challenges. As Vale explained, “A lot of times with agencies, when we've gotten past that initial barriers of understanding that geography is important, now everyone is concerned with security, and it really is a big issue, especially in health, we don't want to compromise the privacy of our patients.”

Laura McNulty echoed Vales observation, identifying that privacy is always top of mind for GIS professionals. This entails protecting the privacy of clients, and working to make sure that information is safe and secure. As many GIS systems are designed as a platform, administrators must understand how data moves between systems, and if data will rest on premise or in the cloud. As McNulty noted, Esri offers solutions to de-identify information through aggregation, so administrators can still conduct analysis, without knowing the identity of individuals.

Even though the privacy challenge exists, Vale and McNulty identified that federal health employees should focus on how GIS can improve the health and wellness initiatives they administer. "When people think about GIS and health, they need to think about how much geography matters. And when it comes to your health, your zip code is a strong predictor of health and life span, more than even your genetic code. So where you live, work, play, go to school, all of that has a huge impact on your health," said McNulty.

Like any data project, the first step for GIS is to truly understand data. With GIS, everything is spatially linked, so decision makers must recognize that there is a spatial component. As McNulty said, “I think the first thing folks need to understand is their data. Everything is spatially linked, and then learning to explore that data and be able to ask meaningful questions, that can result in those actionable decisions and policies.”

GIS holds great promise for government agencies to transform how health services are delivered. Today, the intersection of GIS, cloud, big data and analytics, offers a unique opportunity for government agencies to unlock new insights and achieve mission objectives through technology.

If you’re interested in learning more about Health and GIS, be sure to attend the Esri Federal GIS Conference. You can register for the conference here; the Federal GIS Conference is free to all federal employees, NPOs, NGOs, and international organizations.

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When 
Esri was founded in 1969, it realized even then that geographic information system (GIS) technology could make a difference in society. GIS helps people to solve problems at local, regional, national, and global scales. Access maps and apps at ArcGIS.com. Be sure to check out all the
 GIS resources produced by Esri and GovLoop.

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