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Perspectives|

Applying Geographic Information Systems in Healthcare

How geographical location plays a critical role when it comes to extracting meaning from data.

Based on the work of Michael Stiehl, MS. Written by Philip Baker.
4-minute read

  • Data Analytics
  • Public Policy
  • Technology and Innovation

In Brief

  1. The last two decades have witnessed the growing capacity of geographical information systems (GIS) to extract meaning from location.
  2. Using data from a wide range of domains, GIS can find answers to complex multi-dimensional questions common to the field of healthcare.
  3. In his class for the MScBMI program, Mike Stiehl teaches students how to use GIS software to generate solutions of their own.

A senior policy analyst discusses the ways geographic information systems (GIS) apply across disciplines and how that makes them well-suited to answer the kinds of complex multi-dimensional questions frequently found in the healthcare field today.

Mike Stiehl, a senior policy analyst at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago and instructor of “Geographic Information Systems and Health Information” for the Biomedical Informatics (BMI) program, first started working with geographic information systems (GIS) in the mid-90s. With the field still in its infancy at the time, there was limited public data available, only a single and very expensive piece of software, and public policy professionals were yet to understand the critical role of location in extracting meaning from data.

“It’s completely different today,” he says. “The array of open-source tools we have access to free online, along with the readily available troves of data—census data, crime data, city portal data, and more—means the barrier to using GIS to draw conclusions is virtually gone. Everyone now has access to the data government agencies use to design policy and programs. And that it’s all a very recent development means it’s a very exciting time to be involved with GIS.”

GIS Ties into Everything

Having worked in transportation, education, as well as rural and urban planning, Stiehl, who has degrees in geography and urban planning, notes that the common theme to his career has been his use of GIS.

“For 20 years, I’ve tried to understand the impact of place on public policy,” he says. “In certain ways, I’ve been able to resist specialization and engage with such a number of fields because GIS ties in everything. Unlike working with most data, where you’re always looking for the common identifier, the link’s already there with GIS—it’s location.”

At Chapin Hall, Stiehl manages and provides data analysis and visualization for a variety of public policy areas, including child welfare, community development, education, and human services. As a senior policy analyst, he works to advance the integration of evidence and data in ways that produce better outcomes for the most vulnerable children and families. 

He explains how these better outcomes come about by noting that “if you wanted to deploy a half-dozen community health centers across Chicago before GIS, you’d have distributed them throughout the city with the exact same array of services and sorts of resources. But with GIS, now that you know diabetes is more prevalent in this area, whereas something else is happening over here, you can more intelligently allocate those resources in differentiated and customized ways depending on the breakdown of the surrounding neighborhood and its population.”

"Ultimately, I think the key for healthcare professionals will be how GIS can reveal relationships, trends, and patterns that would not have been apparent using other data analysis applications."

Mike Stiehl, Senior Policy Analyst, Chapin Hall

Making Maps and Understanding Their Distortions

Stiehl has two main goals he hopes to impart students in “Geographic Information Systems and Health Information.” First, he hopes students leave with the GIS software skills to make maps of their own. In fact, in class, using QGIS, a free and open-source GIS, students will use data they find on their own to make a map, analyze it, and generate conclusions.

“I also want them to understand the unique ways GIS—and maps in general—distort images,” he says. “Making a map always involves privileging certain perspectives while pushing others to the side and it’s important to understand the sorts of misunderstandings that can arise when these distortions aren’t deployed intentionally.”

Finding Patterns across Disciplines

There are also implicit ethical concerns that arise when using a technology as powerful as GIS and the class will throw light on the various privacy risks and intrusions that go along with using personal data in conjunction with GIS.

“Ultimately, I think the key for healthcare professionals will be how GIS can reveal relationships, trends, and patterns that would not have been apparent using other data analysis applications,” he says. “This is particularly true because GIS applies across disciplines and in that way it’s well-suited to answer the kinds of complex multi-dimensional questions frequently found in the healthcare field.”

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Philip Baker

Staff Writer

Philip Baker is a staff writer at the University of Chicago. He graduated from the College with a degree in English.