Geospatial data provides insights the medical field desperately needs
Geospatial intelligence data will revolutionize healthcare and the way it is administered, a trio of experts said Sunday at GEOINT Foreword—the GEOINT Symposium’s pre-conference science and technology day.
“The idea that the environment influences behavior is well established,” said Mario Schootman, associate dean for research at the College for Public Health and Social Justice at St. Louis University. “But until very recently the data and tools necessary to investigate this in public health in a thorough and systematic way were really not available.”
Schootman gave the example of his team’s effort to analyze environmental factors that would be important to healthcare by using Google Maps images of St. Louis and Indianapolis. They then visited those same areas in person to gauge the accuracy of their predictions.
What they found was that the images accurately depicted the condition of the streets people lived on, how far homes were from public transportation, and what purpose plots of land were being used for.
“Neighborhood conditions play an important role in the risk and outcomes of various diseases,” Schootman said.
Vincent Seaman, the interim deputy director for strategy, data, and analytics of global development for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said GEOINT is critical to the organization’s efforts to eradicate polio, starting with generating accurate maps in places like Nigeria.
The currently available maps “are inaccurate, they’re incomplete, they’re out of date,” Seaman said. “It’s usually a major road or a large river is about all you’ll see.”
The Gates foundation has partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to use satellite imagery coupled with surveys on the ground to create accurate depictions of basic information critical to healthcare, such as where people live within Nigeria.
Likewise, GEOINT can help healthcare providers gain a more accurate sense of a population’s composition.
“Most countries use a flat percentage for each demographic they’re interested in,” said Seaman, noting that Nigeria’s government says children under five comprise about 20 percent of the population.
“We actually found that the under five percentage rate is 11 percent in the south [and] 23 percent in the north,” he said. “So if you’re in the south and you’re using 20 percent you’re almost going to come up with double the number of children you really have,” which is important when you’re trying to stock enough vaccines for a region.
Even simply looking at geographic topography and building construction offers clues about disease pathogens. Seaman said epidemiologists could now model which areas are most likely to catch rainwater or collect sewer water, so if there’s an outbreak of a water-based illness in an area, they can pinpoint likely origin sources within that region.
The foundation has developed many of these principles and tools to fight polio, but has already applied them to help combat the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Now, they’re looking at how to apply the tools to other nations to improve healthcare, Seaman said.
Sometimes, geospatial data can solve multiple health problems at once, said Budhendra Bhaduri of Oak Ridge’s Urban Dynamics Institute.
Experts can look at city blocks to determine the socioeconomic status of the residents. For example, regimented, straight streets with well-constructed buildings likely indicates a planned settlement inhabited by the middle class or wealthy, as opposed to. a more amorphous area with tents or flimsier structures.
Such information may also benefit disaster planning and response.
“This is not just a socioeconomic indicator but it’s also a resilience indicator,” Bhaduri said. “Let’s say there’s an earthquake. You can have an estimate of what is likely to be standing versus what’s likely to crumble down fairly easily.”
The continued use of GEOINT will be an essential tool in the way medicine is applied, Bhaduri said.
“We are trying to find every human settlement one can identify from these images,” he concluded. “Essentially we are remapping the planet with every settlement and every building one can see, which is pretty amazing.”
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