Computerized geographic information systems (GIS) can help to analyze trends associated with childhood obesity and ultimately could become a vital tool in prevention efforts, according to series of studies published this week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
In one study, GIS was used in Seattle and San Diego to help evaluate a child's environment and how it contributes to the potential for obesity based on "playability" and "proximity to health food." The technology measured how many parks and playgrounds were within walking distance in various neighborhoods as well as the number of supermarkets and fast-food restaurants to rate the areas' nutritional and physical health advantages and disadvantes.
"Developing the GIS-based environmental assessment method in two regions suggested it could be applied in multiple study areas," the study's authors wrote. "The environmental measures employed objectively assessed GIS data to create a novel study design and recruitment scheme that allowed examination of the separate and interactive effects of both physical activity and nutrition measures of built environment, which are believed to represent the most important dimensions of obesogenic environments for youth."
In an accompanying essay to the studies, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Research and Evaluation Officer Celeste Marie Torio, Ph.D., explained that GIS helps such efforts by creating a "visual representation" of connections between people and their environments. "It models complex reality by breaking it down to layers of information, represented by points, lines, areas and images, covering a wide range of geography," Torio said. "GIS essentially allows for the simultaneous examination of multiple variables and their complex interactions across a variety of contexts."
Torio added that despite such potential, GIS use is only in its early stages. "Looking toward the future," she said, "GIS may help enhance our understanding of how the multitude of factors and their interactions influence childhood obesity, and help us reverse this epidemic."