Researchers use maps to research obesity

Researchers use maps to research obesity

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When obesity researchers at the University of Pennsylvania were looking to prevent obesity among schoolchildren, they turned to an unexpected group of experts: mapmakers. The university’s Cartographic Modeling Laboratory got to work, drawing maps of the neighborhoods around five Philadelphia elementary schools. What resulted were not ordinary street maps. Rather, they were maps showing “food opportunities.”

Using handheld computers as they walked about, the mapmakers charted every pizza shop, corner store, deli and vendor that beckoned to students as they went to and from school.

The lab is making maps with unusual details to answer a variety of questions about the effects of people’s physical and social environments. Drawing on data from many government and private sources, the lab creates maps to explain how the space in which people live, move and work influences what happens to them.

Much of the research centers on public health issues, such as violence and obesity. The lab’s work already has helped the city decide where to put homeless prevention programs, and it also spurred state funding to encourage more supermarkets in poor city neighborhoods.

Social scientists and public health researchers have long considered demographic characteristics — age, sex, income and education — to help explain individual behavior or a person’s risk for disease. But now sophisticated computer programs – GIS – allow researchers to pull together data on many factors and analyze them spatially, by block, neighborhood or town.

The mapping efforts aren’t just an academic exercise. In another aspect of the project, the Food Trust is working with some area businesses to stock more healthful items.