Exploring Accessibility and Sustainability at the University of Maryland School of Public Health

By: Jessica Throwe, Sofia Marmolejos, and Colette Hochstein

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) periodically hosts classes to introduce aspiring
public health professionals to the benefits of using low-cost GIS mapping tools in
community health research. Recently, NLM interns Jessica Throwe and Sofia
Marmolejos, along with NLM Research Assistant Julian Argoti, presented Community
Health Maps (CHM) to University of Maryland School of Public Health undergraduate
and graduate students.

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The first presentation was held during a seventy-five minute “Principles of Community
Health” class of twenty-five undergraduates. A second was provided to a close-knit
class of ten graduate students studying community health and health literacy.
After an introduction to Community Health Maps and to the history and ideology of
GIS/mapping in health research, students used Fulcrum, a mobile data-collection
utility, to create customized forms for collecting data on their mobile phones. They
were then given thirty minutes to explore the classroom building and collect data on the
health topic of their choice. The data collected included the geographic location,
functionality, and visual appearance of the points of interest.

The larger undergraduate class chose a wide variety of subjects, ranging from nearby
bus stops and curb ramps to building water fountains and bathroom stall colors. The
smaller graduate class focused on the school building’s resources, including hand
sanitizer dispensers, bike racks, compost bins, wheel chair accessibility, and food
offerings. After the data collection and review process, problems with the building’s
resources became more apparent, which sparked ideas regarding potential
improvements.

One group noticed that although the school has a new sustainability initiative, of the
twenty locations in the building with trash and recycling bins, only three included a
compost bin. Another group found that the hand sanitizer dispensers functioned
everywhere except right outside the gym, a site where this product is in high demand. A
third group discovered the school has a limited number of locations to purchase snacks,
and that each of these contains just one vending machine which does not offer healthy
food options.

This introduction and exposure to Community Health Maps allowed University of
Maryland undergraduate students to explore the concept of mapping and to make
connections with community health research. UMD graduate students actively applied
the CHM processes to discovering geospatial inconsistencies in their built environment
and to brainstorming areas for potential improvements within the building.
NLM looks forward to learning how students of varied educational levels will apply
Community Health Maps to future educational and professional experiences.

CHM Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

There are some questions I am asked regularly when teaching CHM workshops. This blog post addresses those common questions, many of which deal with data security.

Can more than one person collect data at the same time with Fulcrum?

Yes it is possible add users to your Fulcrum Organization for team based data collection. You set this up from your Fulcrum Settings page. When adding users you can give them a Role as a Standard User, Manager or Owner. You can also grant member access to your individual data collection apps. At that point those users have the access you granted them via their Role in your organization.

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Is there an organizational account for Fulcrum?

Not really. An organization can have a single account, but that account needs to be associated with a single email address. So the user name and password would then need to be shared with anyone in the organization. This isn’t the way Fulcrum is set up to work and they prefer users not do this. A better way is to create an account and add users to your organization.

The exception to this is Fulcrum Community This is a version of Fulcrum for use in humanitarian relief and disaster situations. You need to apply for a Community license. If granted you can invite any number of data collectors via their email address and they don’t have to have accounts. The Community license is free and lasts one year. We used this in Miami last fall and the project is features on the Community flood page  (Post-Irma Environment Reporting)!

When does Fulcrum record the point?

The point is taken when you click “Save”. You may have backed up to take a photo. However, when you are ready to save the record, you should have your device as close to the object you want to map as possible.

Why do I end up with two datasets from Fulcrum?

Photos you take with your mobile device are geotagged. When you download your data from your Fulcrum account you may end up with two datasets. One is based on your data collection app. The other is based on the coordinates embedded in the photos you took. For example, if you backed up to take a photo of a bench and then saved your point standing over the bench, you will be able to see both where the photo was taken and where the bench is located.

How accurate are the points collected with my mobile device?

There are a number of things that can affect data accuracy such as the quality of the GPS receiver, current satellite configuration, limited sky view, proximity to large buildings, tree cover etc. There is a two part blog post about this you can read here.

One thing to keep in mind is that when you are using Fulcrum to collect field data, the point is taken when you click “Save”. You may have backed up to take a photo. However, when you are ready to save the record you should have your device as close to the object you are mapping as possible. It is also possible to edit and correct point locations after the fact via Fulcrum, Carto or QGIS.

Is my data secure on QGIS?

QGIS is simply a piece of desktop software, not a platform for data storage. With QGIS you can map and analyze your spatial data. Data security has more to do with the security of your computer network and your system for backing data up. QGIS has no more bearing on data security than any other piece of desktop software such as ArcGIS or Microsoft Excel.

Does Fulcrum have HIPAA compliant security?

No. Fulcrum does employ 256-bit SSL connections to keep data safe as it travels to and from your cloud account. As they say, this is the same level of security provided by online banking and e-commerce sites. However, The HIPAA Security Rule requires implementation of three types of safeguards: 1) administrative, 2) physical and 3) technical. So Fulcrum is not HIPAA compliant. However, if they hear from enough users that this is a crucial feature they will likely work on it!

What is open source?

It is both a software license and a way to create software. There are two main types of software licenses: proprietary and open source. Proprietary licenses tend to restrict your usage of the software in some way:

  • number of computers you can install the software on
  • the number of features available
  • the time period you can use the software (e.g., a year)

On the other hand open sources licenses tend to grant users rights and freedoms around using the software. For example with QGIS, the license grants you the freedom to install the software on any number of computers and access to all the features forever. The software also has no monetary cost, it’s free.

Open source is also a software development strategy. The developers work in an open and collaborative way. Many developers feel this is a more efficient way to create software. In an open source project all the source code is available. This last point may not be a hugely important consideration for many. However, access to the source code means that if you have the capability, you can study how the software works and improve it. Because of this feature open source software is not a “black box.” Additionally, even if you cannot program a new feature yourself, you can hire someone who can. Since you are not paying any licensing fees this is often a very viable option.


If you have any other questions about Community Health Maps email them to Kurt Menke and he will try to answer them and add them to this post!

QGIS 3 Released!


On February 23rd QGIS 3 was formally released. Since then the developers have been working on completing installers for Windows, Mac and Linux. As of yesterday the software is ready to be installed on every operating system! To install it you can visit the QGIS Download page.

QGIS VERSIONS
QGIS always has two main versions available. There is the long-term release, which is the most stable because it is supported for one calendar year. In addition there is always a latest release. QGIS 3 falls into this latter category, it is the latest release. At the moment the long-term release is version 2.18. The latest release is still considered stable, but a new one comes out every 4 months.

WHICH VERSION TO CHOOSE?
If you want to have one version of QGIS without having to worry about updates, use the long-term release (2.18). If you want to experience all the new features that come with version 3 you will want the latest release (3.0). As mentioned last month, version 3 is a major new release with a lot of changes and new features.

On Windows machines you can have both. You can easily install both versions of QGIS side by side with no conflicts by using the OSGeo4W Network Installer. On Mac and Linux machines you can only have one version, so you need to choose.

QGIS 3
QGIS 3 is fast, stable and feature rich. The main issue for many users is that not all Plugins have yet  to be ported to QGIS 3. This is because this responsibility falls onto the individual plugin authors. With that said, at last count there were already 117 plugins available for version 3.

 

Fulcrum Community

Last year Fulcrum rolled out a new service named Community. They describe it as a, “no cost, short term crowdsourced data collection solution for qualified humanitarian projects.” 

It works like Fulcrum, but you need to apply for a license. The application form is short and is right on the Community home page. In the application you need to describe your purpose and how long you will be collecting data. You also need to provide a project description. If approved you can invite any number of data collectors via email to share  your App (data collection form).  It is generally aimed at humanitarian agencies, non-profits, or government agencies. They restrict commercial use of this service.

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We used this last fall during King Tide data collection in Miami and it was a big success. In fact there are four main categories highlighted on the Fulcrum Community page: Hurricane, Tornado, Flood and Fire. If you click on Flood, the King Tide project is the first in the list. Clicking on it brings up a map with the data collected.

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One caveat is that the data collected falls into the public domain and can be downloaded freely by anyone. This is possible because the data are anonymized, meaning any private information is scrubbed. The data remain available for viewing and download after the event ends.

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It won’t be appropriate unless there is some sort of disaster relief or environmental issue that demands it, but it is another tool to keep in your Community Health Maps toolkit!

QGIS 3.0 To Be Released in February!

It’s an exciting month for QGIS. On February 23rd there will be a major new release of QGIS: QGIS 3.0. We haven’t had a major new release since 2013 when 2.0 came out. The development team has been working on this for a solid year. This version will be faster and have a lot of new features. Kurt Menke has been closely following the development of QGIS3. Over the last few months he has been experimenting with the pre-release version (v2.99). This post will cover some of the highlights that will be useful to Community Health Mappers. In general QGIS is going to be faster, more powerful and more efficient to work with. First off QGIS 3.0 comes with a new logo!qgis-logo_anita02

Overall the look of QGIS is very similar.  There are  the Layers and Browser panels to the left, a Map Canvas and lots of buttons and menus above. However, upon closer inspection there are a lot of very useful changes. For example, instead of there being a row of add data buttons down the left side, there is now a Unified Data Source Manager button which opens up a browser.

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The Unified Data Source Manager can be used to access the myriad of data formats QGIS supports and add them to QGIS. This includes vector, raster, database, web services etc. You can even browse within Esri File Geodatabases. Any GIS layer you are interested in, can then be added to QGIS by dragging and dropping it onto the map. DataSourceManager.gif

 

The Processing toolbox was completely redesigned and many tools were rewritten. This means many are now faster, more flexible and stable. There are also many new tools that didn’t exist in QGIS v2.x. Additionally processing tasks also now run in the background. This means  you don’t have to stop working while a tool runs! Yet another new processing feature is that layers in different projections will automatically be reprojected, so there is no need to reproject beforehand.

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Map Labels: It now much easier to edit labels. Previously you had to set up attribute columns and set those as data defined overrides. If you don’t know what all that means, it’s OK. Now all you have to do is simply put the layer into edit mode and edit labels with tools on the Label toolbar. Maps also now redraw more quickly due to cached label renderers.

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There is now a Search bar in the lower left corner that can be used to search for map layers, features and processing tools. This makes finding things in QGIS quick and easy.

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The QGIS print composer was completely redesigned. They are now referred to as Layouts. Map insets can now be in a different map projection than the main map. There is a new and improved system of guides which include settings in any unit of measurement you could want (mm, cm, m, in, ft, pt, pica, pix). There are new controls for choosing fonts which include recently used fonts. When you export a map, a link to the folder shows up making it easy to track down the exported map.2018-01-31_163437.jpg

 

Other notable enhancements include:

  • A fully integrated 3D environment
  • Editing improvements including: a) widgets for layer attributes, b) CAD style digitizing tools that allow you to create perfect rectangles, circles, ellipses etc. and c) a new node editing tool with a lot of behavior improvements
  • Previews of where each map projection can be used. This will be a big help for beginners!2018-01-31_170602.jpg
  • User profiles that allow you to set up QGIS with different panels, plugins and toolbars for different projects or uses.
  • Improved hidpi/retina support

 

Where do you go from here?

  • 2.18 will be considered the supported long-term release (LTR) through June.
  • When 3.0 is released in a few weeks it will be considered the latest stable version.
  • 3.2 will become the LTR in June when it is released.
  • Starting on February 23rd you will be able to download and install it. Remember you can have multiple versions installed with no conflicts. I encourage  you to install it in a few weeks and begin to explore it! You won’t want to go back.

NOTE: QGIS 3 projects won’t be entirely backwards compatible with QGIS 2.x. So if you are going to open an existing project in QGIS 3, be sure to click Project –>Save As and save a new verion of the project for use in QGIS3.

Mapping Disasters

By Colette Hochstein (NLM)

On October 12th, 2017, the National Library of Medicine Disaster Information Management Research Center (DIMRC) collaborated with Community Health Maps (CHM) to host a webinar focused on using mapping tools during disasters. The meeting was attended by 128 professionals, including first responders and receivers, emergency planners, and public health librarians, many of whom are involved, directly and indirectly, with disaster relief efforts.

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DIMRC provides access to health information resources and technology for disaster preparedness, response, and recovery; CHM provides users with information and training on low-cost mapping tools that can be used to collect data related to health hazards in communities, including during disasters. Many community-based organizations can better serve their constituents when they are able to collect and maintain their own data; CHM seeks to provide them with the training and tools needed to carry out cost effective and scalable mapping.

After the basic premise of CHM was explained to webinar attendees, several case studies illustrating the different applications of CHM were detailed. One took place in Seattle, Washington and centered on mapping noise pollution in different neighborhoods. The primary focus of this case study was to provide useful insight into the public health concern of noise pollution, which has been linked to various health conditions. Other goals included offering recommendations on the scalability of the Urban Indian Health Organization (UIHO) network and measuring and testing the usability of the CHM GPS/GIS workflow.

Another study described how CHM was used to map “King Tides” in Miami, Florida, and was CHM’s first opportunity to work in the field with users of its workflow. The goal was to communicate health risks associated with the 2017 King Tides during their highest activity, and to demonstrate how the flooding affects local communities. It was also a good test case of successfully using the tools in challenging field conditions.

Overall, the webinar provided the audience with information on the resources offered by CHM and demonstrated how different populations and communities, such as communities affected by disasters, can use CHM to collect and interpret their own data. You can watch the webinar by clicking on this link.

Students teach students during University of Maryland CHM presentation

On September 28, 2017, Community Health Maps (CHM) was presented to the  Community Health class at the University of Maryland School of Public Health in College Park. The session was provided by Julian Argoti, research assistant at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), and three University of Maryland Public Health interns completing their capstone project at the NLM. The primary goal was to expose the students to the resource and to help them explore how it might be used in their research.

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National Library of Medicine CHM interns (left – right): Gessica Fleurival, Deborah Bitire and Sofia Epshtein

The presentation took place within a 95-minute class period with 53 students.  The presenters introduced the CHM blog and briefly touched on using Geographic Information Systems (GIS)/spatial analysis to address a public health concerns, as English physician John Snow did in 1854 by mapping the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho, London, and  as a former NLM intern did by mapping local curb ramps to help those with mobility issues cross streets safely.

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Julian Argoti, NLM research assistant, and NLM interns Gessica Fleurival, Deborah Bitire and Sofia Epshtein, discuss CHM with their peers during a University of Maryland class

The students then completed a hands-on data collection exercise. They were introduced to Fulcrum, a low cost tool that allows users to build custom data collection forms for use on iOS or Android devices. Next, they left the classroom to collect data in real time, from the locations of trashcans and water fountains inside buildings to the positions of benches and signs outside them.

The session ended with the students exploring a series of exercises designed to help them through the entire CHM workflow, from field data collection to online data presentation.  A post-class survey indicated that most participants felt they could use CHM in upcoming assignments.