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Mapping behavioral health trends

January 29, 2009
by David Raths
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When executives from the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati wanted to illustrate some of the highlights of their 2008 student drug use survey, they turned to a new Web-based mapping tool called HealthLandscape. The interactive Web atlas, developed by the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati and the American Academy of Family Physicians, can help behavioral health policy makers, service providers, and researchers “geocode” and visualize their data.

Because the Coalition’s survey data could be sorted by zip code, the group used HealthLandscape to show substance abuse programs where certain types of drug use are more prevalent.

“For instance, we are interested in targeting neighborhoods where there are problems with specific substances, such as inhalants,” explains Holly Molony, the Coalition’s executive director and president. “These are smaller data points than with other drugs, but they occur in certain geographical pockets, and we want to use the mapping tool to draw that picture.”

HealthLandscape’s geographic information system (GIS) tool also promises to make presentations to the public more powerful than just numbers or anecdotal information can do, Molony adds.

One of HealthLandscape’s goals is to make GIS available to a wide range of public health officials and service providers, who typically have difficulty affording expensive mapping software or hiring GIS specialists. HealthLandscape users can upload and geocode their own data and then combine it with publicly available data, including regional criminal justice, economic, education, healthcare, and census data, says Mark Carrozza, health informatics developer for the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati.

Carrozza adds that HealthLandscape could prove valuable to grant seekers looking for a concise and illustrative way to demonstrate regional needs. For instance, a service provider could map out concentrations of drug users and clinic locations to identify underserved areas. Carrozza notes that an official from the Ohio Department of Health recently used HealthLandscape to combine data about airborne pollutants and the prevalence of certain mental illnesses.

Access to HealthLandscape’s publicly available data is free. Its monthly ($500) and annual ($1,200) subscriptions allow users to combine their own data with HealthLandscape’s library of maps. A free 14-day trial membership is available.

David Raths is a freelance writer.

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