Establishing an NIH-wide Geospatial Infrastructure for Medical Research: Opportunities, Challenges, and Next Steps
Report of the AAG-NIH Workshop on Geospatial Infrastructure for Medical Research, 2011
The need for spatial and spatiotemporal analysis arises in numerous areas of NIH biomedical and public health research, and NIH Institutes and Centers increasingly recognize the importance of geographic context in this research. The past two decades have seen dramatic increases in the use of geographic theories, data, methods, and tools to help respond to this need. For example, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and spatial modeling are being used in research on the epidemiology of cancers (NCI); social epidemiology research related to drug abuse and treatment (NIDA), studies of gene-environment-health interactions (NIEHS); heart disease, stroke, asthma, and COPD (NHLBI); infectious-disease transmission, ecology, and spread (NIAID and Fogarty Center); understanding the relationship between UV radiation, vitamin D levels, and MS prevalence (NINDS); small-area analyses of pain and access to care for pain-related conditions (NINDS); and on themes related to global health and health disparities.
While such examples demonstrate great progress in recent years in developing GIS, geocoding services, mapping, and associated standards, challenges still abound. These include the lack of interoperability among proprietary systems, longitudinal variation in data collection, difficulties of sharing inadequately documented data, issues of confidentiality of location-specific data, lack of understanding of the basic concepts of spatial and spatiotemporal data and analysis, and redundancy of effort and investment. A comprehensive or uniform strategy to incorporate geographic context across the breadth of biomedical and public health research at NIH does not yet exist.
Furthermore, most health-science applications do not take full advantage of the latest developments in spatial and spatiotemporal data analysis and modeling, or the new types of geographic data and computing resources that are becoming available. These developments are related to: 1) the explosion of real-time, spatiotemporal data from GPS-enabled devices, distributed environmental sensor systems, satellite remote sensing, and (potentially) from geographically tagged electronic medical records; 2) development of new tools and methods for analyzing spatiotemporal data, including methods of geovisualization, dynamic spatiotemporal modeling, and modeling of human mobility at scales ranging from the everyday to the life course; and 3) advances in computing technologies, service-oriented architectures, and cyberinfrastructure that are fueling the growth of distributed and collaborative services known as the geospatial web.
Such challenges are common across the diverse Institutes and Centers of NIH, cutting across the social and biomedical sciences. However, NIH-funded research incorporating geographic approaches has thus far been carried out primarily on a project-by-project basis, mitigating the potential advancement of geographic data, methods, and theories across NIH divisions. Very substantial scale economies, not to mention opportunities for innovative and collaborative research discoveries, can be achieved by addressing them collectively. While many institutes have made substantial investments in spatial data and tools, a collective approach through a common infrastructure would offer significant advantages.
To evaluate the potential development of an NIH-wide geography and geographic information infrastructure ("geospatial infrastructure") to support basic biomedical research and public health applications, the Association of American Geographers (AAG), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently co-sponsored a highly-successful workshop. Participants included senior scientists from across the National Institutes of Health (NIH), leading researchers in GIScience, NIH-funded researchers who use geographic theory and methods in their research, and industry experts on geographic technologies. The workshop was held on February 22-23, 2011 at NIH facilities in Rockville, Maryland. This report presents the key ideas along with a series of proposed next steps that emerged from workshop presentations and discussions. In addition, Appendix A includes a summary of the workshop, Appendix B lists workshop participants, and Appendix C details the workshop agenda.