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“Spatial is the new sexy” June 6, 2010

Posted by Bahadir Sahin in English, Haber (News).
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Where are you? At home, at work, in Halifax, in Nova Scotia? While we’re usually aware of our location, how many of us pause to think how geography actually affects our lives beyond location? Our health? Our decisions?

Nothing is more important to who we are than where we are, and with the popularization of geographic information systems (GIS), we can capture, store and analyse data linked to our location like never before. The concept isn’t new; it dates back to the mid-1800s when physician John Snow used maps during the cholera outbreak in London to show that incidents were occurring near a community water tap.

Today, there isn’t a government department or large-scale enterprise that doesn’t use GIS technology, and with good reason. Detailed information on a population is crucial to decision-making for both.

“There is a shift in every field towards thinking spatially,” says James Boxall, head of the GIS Centre at Dalhousie. “People don’t stay in one place. People move and their genes move with them. We have to ask ourselves, where? Why there? Why care?”

Why care, indeed. The most apparent reason is that which is of greatest importance to most everyone: our health.

“In terms of health, you have to know your own place,” explains Mr. Boxall. “It’s the place concept in geo-health that asks where are you and what are you being exposed to, such as environmental features, the era of the buildings you live in and are surrounded by, population and so on and what might happen to you based on that.”

The subject was the focus of a recent Health Leadership Forum at Dalhousie, sponsored by the GIS Centre with Capital District Health Authority and Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) Canada.

In the opening presentation, Bill Davenhall of California, global manager of health geographics, ESRI, outlined the geographical considerations for all health care sectors to consider. He pressed that everyone now has the ability to map themselves and this information needs to be shared with medical services and get the data analysed properly.

Dr. Jennifer Payne, community health and epidemiology professor at Dalhousie, explained how geography and GIS help in breast cancer screening in Nova Scotia. In particular, she explored how GIS can play a key role in determining where to set up the mobile screening unit – the large bus/camper/mobile command centre you’ve undoubtedly seen as it makes its way across the province.

Another project using GIS is the Atlantic PATH, led by Dalhousie’s Louise Parker. The study follows the health of individuals from Atlantic Canada between 35-69 years of age for up to 30 years to map their health and what happens to them. For example, Trevor Dummer of Dalhousie’s Department of Pediatrics explained how arsenic levels in the province have been mapped using GIS and that PATH is looking for volunteers’ toenails for this very reason.

While mapping health issues is an important role for GIS, it’s not the only one. Ever wonder why that Sobeys or Wal-Mart was built where it is? As Mr. Boxall explains, every major organization – government, private or large non-profit – has people responsible for GIS, analyzing where people go, how they go there and what they do there.

The largest GIS library facility in Eastern Canada, the Dalhousie GIS Centre is currently involved in many other projects, including measuring the solar potential of rooftops in Halifax. Mirrored off of a similar project in Boston, it will help determine where solar panels will work and Mr. Boxall and his associates can calculate savings in dollars and CO2 emissions.

“It’s time for everyone to start thinking spatially,” says Mr. Boxall. “Spatial is the new sexy.”

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