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NACo
County Solutions and Innovation Blog​​
October 22
Counties Use Mapping to Complete the Picture

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Policymakers around the country understand  we are facing a health epidemic like never before.  Our children are noted to be the unhealthiest generation in U.S. history and for the first time expected  not to live a life as long as their parents.  That statement is unconscionable and health professionals at every level of government and throughout our communities are diligently working to reverse the tide.

Organizations are collaborating, sharing, and using data to change health policy in their communities.  There is a lot of information out there in the form of graphs, spreadsheets, and statistics.  But without a geographical reference, the picture is incomplete.  GIS or geographic information systems is the missing piece as geography integrates information and helps to us to know the “why”. Geographic understanding changes the “I think” to “I know”.  It provides the “where” that can assist policymakers to understand the demographics and socio-economic information of a community.  When the picture is complete, policies can be developed and implemented in a thoughtful and strategic fashion.

  • We understand the cause of so many of our health concerns are due to physical inactivity and poor nutrition. By utilizing the geographic information of a community, we understand where the disconnect exists, we begin to understand:
  • Where to provide services and why some locations work better than others
  • Where to build our schools and where to assist existing ones develop safe routes for our children
  • Where community health clinics will best serve the population and where we need to recruit for medical professionals, now and for the future
  • Where transportation corridors are lacking, preventing residents from shopping for groceries in their own communities or whether a community is a food desert
  • We know where the 911 calls are occurring and why by mapping the location of the callers and their frequency. This helps to understand where alternate solutions must be developed.  In one instance, it revealed clusters of seniors without basic transport to physicians who used 911 due to lack of transportation. Now there’s a policy change public safety, health, and community services can get behind!

GIS is an essential component to policy change and can be the building block needed to create a healthy community.  By initiating an environmental scan, you can use GIS to identify many things such as:

  • parks and open space, 
  • youth organization boundaries,
  • access to grocery stores, 
  • safe routes to schools,
  • community services
  • access to food 
  • access to health care
  • transportation corridors
  • preparedness

Once assets are identified, a pattern quickly emerges as you visualize where the gaps in services and where providers currently exist.   An initial sweep provides broad data. However, by drilling down by zip code, block area, or by neighborhoods, we understand how boundaries impact the health of a region.

For example, one California community discovered an old sports boundary that excluded the children of one historically low income neighborhood.  This was also an area left behind as the city grew in prosperity adding new amenities, shopping, and parks.  GIS identified the “where” so that the community could address their findings with appropriate policies and solutions.  They applied for and were awarded funding specific to this neighborhood so as to target with appropriate interventions to create a more equitable and healthier community.

Policymakers want the best for their communities and they understand that a program in itself is not the solution for lasting change.  True policy change at both formal and informal levels is needed to move a community.  GIS is a powerful tool for a policy maker and can support change for both formal and informal policies, prioritize need and assists them to plan effectively. The complete picture can be a powerful catalyst for a healthy community.

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