“Giving students and others an insight into patterns of health risk and behavior at East Carolina University”

by David E Carey

Surveillance and analysis at the Center for Health Systems Research and Development. East Carolina University is committed to service, teaching and research. It has a major commitment to improving health in the state and eastern region of North Carolina. The Center for Health Systems Research and Development (CHSRD) in the Department of Public Health is an important part of the University’s Health Sciences Division. In addition to surveillance and analysis of health problems, the Center is engaged with local communities to plan, develop, and improve systems of health services. We spoke to Christopher Mansfield and Katherine Jones about the center’s Health Data Explorer.

What were you hoping to do?

We had developed paper-based atlases showing major disease mortality, disparities between groups, social and economic factors for Eastern North Carolina which we updated every three years. This meant revisiting a lot of data and creating new maps each time.

We were looking into dynamic mapping and were initially intending to build something from scratch ourselves. Then we saw what other organizations had been doing with InstantAtlas and realized we could do something similar. The next step was to assemble all of our data and get it into one database for the Explorer.

What does the Health Data Explorer do?

The Health Data Explorer provides access to health data for North Carolina counties in an interactive, user-friendly atlas of maps, tables, and charts. It allows users to select, visualize, explore and download data on major disease mortality, disparities between groups, social and economic factors, and health behaviors. Users can also print maps and export image files from the Explorer.


How is it being used?

It is used extensively by health departments and other agencies for community health needs assessments. It is also used for teaching in our public health curriculum. The double maps are useful as a teaching tool because they help our students understand multiple risk factors and causes in epidemiology. The Explorer can be used to teach linear methods for regression before going into more detailed analysis with SPSS and SAS.

However, the Explorer is publicly available and by using Google analytics we can see that it is not just students that are making use of it.

What are you plans for developing the Explorer?

We have been in discussion with environmental health professors at the University who are interested in including environmental factors into the Explorer. We would also like to add in population pyramids.

At the moment the data is not available at census tract level and we would really like to include zip code and congressional districts so we can map data by political districts and at municipal and neighborhood levels.

What are the benefits of using InstantAtlas?

  • We can keep the Explorer up to date more easily than we would have done with the paper reports, which in turn means we can include the latest data
  • The maps can be extracted and used in other presentations since it is easy to export images to other files
  • The maps help us show patterns of health in an accessible and understandable format

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