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Posted on September 30th, 2012

Back to School – Community Mapping

Scientists at the Department of Family and Social Medicine at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York composed a study using public participation GIS (PPGIS) to build maps of social determinants of diabetes and obesity in the Bronx, New York. The researchers chose Google Earth to build community maps based on the ease of use, as well as the fact that the software is free. The foundation of the paper was written around two case studies using Google Earth. The first involved medical treatment recipients mapping their sources of food and exercise in their neighborhood; and the second involved medical students mapping healthy food choices accessible near their student-run free clinic.

An area of approximately one square mile (20 city blocks) by the old Yankee Stadium was examined near the Montefiore center, and lists of places to obtain food and exercise were documented. There were 11 sites for exercise recorded (predominately playgrounds) and 113 sources of food. Forty-four of these food establishments were bodegas, and thirty-two were fast-food restaurants.

The Albert Einstein College of Medicine also runs a free clinic on Saturdays that is staffed by 3rd and 4th year medical students. It has been in operation since 1999, and at the time of the publishing of this study (2008; from unpublished data in 2005), the Saturday clinic had seen over 5,000 patients. A survey done by the center showed that the most important factors stated by patients to improve their healthy were to consume healthier food and to get more exercise.

A second area of study was documented near the Saturday clinic and it involved a ten-block radius (slightly larger than one square mile). There were 168 food sources identified that were then broken into four categories: three for smaller corner stores and one for larger supermarkets. The smaller categories were labeled “poor variety” (n=81), “some variety” (n=57), and “good variety” (n=19). The fourth category was well-stocked supermarkets, eleven of which offered healthy options not available in any corner store. The study found that residents typically had to walk by 1 or 2 corner stores with lesser quality food merchandise before finding one that had healthier options. The study also revealed that there was a large amount of fresh produce available in an area that would be considered a lower-socioeconomic zone. This information shows that with some effort, residents can obtain healthier food options.

Google Earth was used to construct maps with icons that list the best and worst options for healthy food and exercise relative to where the residents reside. The researchers felt that maps give visual representations to healthy options far better than a printed word document could. When people are able to see exactly where their best options are in relation to where they live or work, they can better plan their routes or times for food shopping or dining.

The Google compound sits in Mountain View, California, just south of Palo Alto and Stanford University. It has come a long way since it was first incorporated in 1998. Who knew ‘google’ would become a verb at that time? This 60-cm natural color QuickBird image comes courtesy of DigitalGlobe and has been Photo Enhanced by Apollo Mapping. Image captured September 19, 2011.

While the researchers did not expect individual citizens (especially in poorer areas) to build these maps on their own, they did feel that it was a service that should be available to everyone. Providing better food and exercise options will lead to healthier, happier people; and therefore reduce health care costs for the community in general. And by making these maps available to the public, they could drive the food sources in the Bronx area that provide lesser quality foods into offering healthier options. Given its popularity and ease-of-use, Google Earth is an ideal platform for maps that could improve the lives of community residents such as these.

Justin Harmon

Staff Writer

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