Interviewer: Kurt Menke, GISP
What is your background?
My professional experience has been in two areas: disaster risk reduction and reducing health disparities. In 1990 I formed the Center for Public Service Communications. Since
then I have provided guidance and expertise to individuals, communities and public sector organizations. I help them apply telecommunications and information technologies to reduce health disparities, improve health services to underserved
and disenfranchised individuals and communities and to improve the collection and sharing of scientific, technical and community knowledge. The end goal is to reduce human vulnerability to natural hazards. I’ve been a consultant and advisor to the National Library of Medicine for more than 20 years.
Through the years, I’ve realized that my skills seem best suited to working with change agents. These are individuals and organizations whose missions focus on enhancing capacities and improving access to technologies that enable positive change at the community level. I guess the tag line says it best, the mission of CPSC is: “Empowering competent enthusiastic people to do good things.” That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.
You’re the original architect of CHM, what was your inspiration?
Well, Kurt, I would say that we, together, have been architects of CHM, with a long-term commitment and guidance from the National Library of Medicine. As you will remember, it was back in 2003 that we met. I had organized a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians President’s Task Force on Health Information and Technology in Honolulu, Hawai’i, hosted by the Native Hawaiian health organization Papa Ola Lokahi.
At that meeting, you gave a presentation on work you were doing with the National Indian Council on Aging. At that moment, it was obvious to me that mapping would be a great tool for underserved community-oriented environmental health advocacy groups and public health agencies. It could help them engage with community residents and empower them to collect, maintain and visualize their own data, rather than relying solely on national or state agencies, or majority-institution partners to provide data to them. It took us a while to settle on our current course but the ride was interesting and the result was, I think, worth waiting for.
Why do you think CHM has been so successful?
While access to quality health information is frequently a focus of attention in efforts to reduce health disparities in underserved communities, the ability to visualize spatial data and information has received less attention. This is in part because the historic scarcity of affordable and intuitive data collection and mapping applications. Additionally, the cost to train users, and sustain operations, has been prohibitive for communities and community-oriented organizations whose health budgets are already strained. I think we’ve found a model, with the Community Health Maps workflow, that addresses these historical challenges.
Without equal access to GIS tools, communities might have access to completed maps, but they cannot actively participate in, much less create and be responsible for their own initiatives. I think CHM has been successful because the approach we have envisioned enables that access, and CHM users thus far have appreciated the freedom they have, to explore ideas and to create hypotheses that they have not had access to until now.
What sets CHM apart from other public health mapping initiatives?
I think what sets CHM apart from other public health mapping initiatives is that our approach involves using relatively low cost tablets and smartphones – technology that has become ubiquitous and with which users are comfortable — combined with a selection of low/no-cost applications for data collection and visualization. With these tools, data can then be analyzed and presented without purchasing expensive software licenses. These tools allow expert and novice users, with little budget resource, to implement mapping workflows. Introducing such workflows to community-oriented public health professionals empowers users to collect, analyze, display and share their own spatial data. Importantly, many of these tools can also be used to share data collected using other programs, such as ESRI’s ArcGIS and national/state- derived databases such as CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and Public Use Data files from National Center for Health Statistics.
Where would you like to see the project go from here?
What we have developed is essentially available at no or very little monetary cost. I don’t want to underestimate or undervalue the labor and intellectual time that is required to learn how to use the tools. But we believe that organizations and individuals who work to improve the quality of life in underserved communities will see the benefit of using the CHM resource as a worthwhile commitment of time.
The National Library of Medicine has been a great partner and continues to plan an integral part in planning the course for CHM. Through NLM’s outreach efforts we have several successful pilot projects that readers of this blog will be familiar with. Through these continued efforts of sharing the tools through NLMs network of libraries I hope the use of CHM will grow. My hope is also that more academic health schools will introduce the CHM into their teaching and research programs as have the University of Washington and the Medical University of South Carolina, two of our partners. I’d also call to the attention of your readers the labs that you have developed and are available on this blog. My hope is that they will encourage prospective CHM users to try the workflow at their own pace.