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On Location Chris Hartlove

On Location (continued)

Shannon Doocy, PhD, with the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response, often uses GIS to study natural disasters and affected communities.

She and her colleagues also use GIS information to analyze approaching storms, in hopes of anticipating which areas are most vulnerable. “If you can have a good understanding of where a hurricane is likely to hit and flooding is likely to occur,” she says, “you can plan humanitarian assistance efforts with a better understanding of what to anticipate post-disaster.”

One example, she says, was Cyclone Nargis in Burma (Myanmar). “After that, we created a GIS model that estimated the affected population,” explains Doocy, an assistant professor in International Health. “There was an area where a lot of aid groups were being restricted, and there wasn’t a lot of access to information or good estimates of the affected population. The UN was able to use our maps and population estimates to inform their emergency response.”

But determining the significance of place has historically proved more complicated when studying less concrete issues, such as the role that one’s social environment might play in substance abuse. Here too, however, GIS is proving valuable, says Debra Furr-Holden, PhD, an associate professor in Mental Health.

Much of Furr-Holden’s research centers on the epidemiology of drug and alcohol abuse in Baltimore City. Using handheld GPS devices, she says, researchers can venture into the community to collect data about where they’re finding indications of violence, alcohol use, tobacco and drugs, as well as potentially influencing factors such as poverty or crime rates. Meanwhile, the GPS automatically records the location where researchers are collecting data.

One successful project occurred a few years ago, when Furr-Holden and her colleagues were studying whether the proximity of liquor stores and bars to schools influenced the rate of underage drinking. Not only did they find an increase in alcohol use in children, they linked it to poor academic and substance abuse outcomes.

Further still, researchers found that several establishments were violating a Baltimore law barring alcohol sales within 300 feet of a church or school. “Using that data, we were able to work with the city to identify which outlets were violating the law,” Furr-Holden says. “They were actually able to get some of those nonconforming outlets closed because we were able to make a strong case from the public health perspective that there would be health improvements if they took this on.”

That, she says, was made possible through GIS.

“One of the limitations we often cite in public health is that we’re unclear about the effects of the environment on individuals and communities has brought to public health a population-based approach that looks at the relationship between people and place. We now have the tools and capacity to look at the broader impact of the environment on individuals and communities and their health and health behaviors.”

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