With infectious disease outbreaks occurring without warning, here is a new and developing system to track the spread of infectious diseases. The citizens of Little Rock can track all infectious agents through this system, utilizing the Centers for Disease Control website.
Geographical information systems, also called geospatial information systems, are systems specifically designed to collect, store, analyze, manipulate, compartmentalize and present differing types of geographical data (Foot & Lynch, 2000). Geographic information systems (GIS) and the analyses based on the different types of information available through GIS have become widespread and well accepted, potentially changing the ways in which infectious disease epidemiologists gather and analyze data. GIS does not encompass a total understanding or provide definitive solutions towards the varying distributions of infectious pathogens or other problems encountered in public health, but it is an innovative new tool, that when properly utilized, can better illuminate how humans interact with their environment to create or deter health (Ricketts, 2003). Maguire (1991) illustrates how GIS provides researchers across all scientific fields the ability to give data new meaning. GIS focuses on presenting data in a different light, focusing on spatial entities and relationships, and pairing them together with an analysis analytics. Maguire states “In a technical sense it is the ability to organize and integrate apparently disparate data sets together by geography which make GIS so powerful. The spatial searching and overlay operations are a key functional feature of GIS” (p. 17).
There are different types of Geographical Information System maps that are available for use. Vector data maps are generally two-dimensional in nature, and are driven by data points representing precise latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. Rastor data graphs are three dimensional in nature, and are built one pixel at a time, integrating multiple different layers of seemingly unrelated data. Rastor graphs organize geographical data into correlating thematic layers and tables. Seeing as the data in a rastor graph is based on geography, it has real world implications, and therefor that data is able to overlay one another. “GIS links the location to each layer (such as people to addresses, buildings to parcels, or streets within a network) to give a better understanding of how the features interrelate” (FPA, 2011).
With the GIS technology becoming more readily available in the late 20th century, the public health field has begun integrating the benefits of such technology in research. For example, Geanuracos et al. (2007) benefited from the GIS technology in planning HIV prevention strategies for interventions amongst identified high-risk youth. The researchers concluded that “the maps produced with GIS software offer a unique method for visualizing an array of community characteristics, communicating them to nontechnical audiences, and incorporating them into a planning process” (p. 1979).
With the technology of GIS rapidly increasing, the possibilities of coordinating GIS tools into public health research are also increasing. With the abilities of graphs such as vectors and rastors, new and innovative ways to interpret data are readily becoming available, providing additional research avenues. In the case of infectious pathogens, the tracking abilities with GIS are readily evident, and provide a new, technologically advanced way, in which to extrapolate and plot data.