In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geographic Information Systems

  • Introduction
  • Journals

Public Health Geographic Information Systems
Candace I.J. Nykiforuk
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0043


Understanding relationships between health and environmental factors (e.g., sociodemographic, economic, political, and physical variables) is complex. Geographic information systems (GIS) have emerged as a venue through which micro-, macro-, and intermediary-level variables can be considered in the investigation and presentation of such relationships. GIS and the underlying science (geographic information science, or GISc) combine to form the study of the acquisition, handling, and visualization of geographic data and information through the use of computer systems. GIS/GISc is closely related to other geospatial sciences, such as surveying and remote sensing. There is a wide range of specific GIS packages available to study geographic data, varying in the scope of analyses possible as well as in computing power and cost requirements. Any given GIS provides a single system to integrate spatial data and related qualitative and quantitative information about social, economic, health, or environmental conditions, which are listed as “attributes” of the spatial location. From this spatial analysis, significant relationships among those variables that influence health at a range of aggregations, from local to international, can be identified. Using GIS allows results from the analysis (i.e., patterns in the data) to be presented in the form of visually appealing, high-impact maps. These maps have the ability to tell stories and communicate patterns in ways not possible with other data-presentation techniques. To this end, GIS has been used in environmental health, disease ecology, and public health as a tool for processing, analyzing, and visualizing data. Overall, GIS is a highly powerful tool that effectively combines disparate data sources to visually illustrate complex relationships within data. It is therefore able to address many research questions or practical applications, such as “How do rates of certain types of cancer differ across the country?” or “How have the rates of malaria changed across the world over the last number of decades?” GIS have been established as a means to effectively link and analyze a wide range of data, and they can be meaningfully applied to public health policy, promotion, and practice.

General Overviews

To date, several books have been published that highlight the theoretical and practical concerns associated with using GIS generally and in a public health context. Bernhardsen 2002; Burrough and McDonnell 1998; and Longley, et al. 2011 provide comprehensive introductions to GIS in general, including typical methods, data collection, and analyses in the field.

  • Bernhardsen, Tor. 2002. Geographic information systems: An introduction. 3d ed. New York: Wiley.

    A comprehensive introduction to GIS that provides a clear description of technical concepts important for users of GIS technology. Introduces data models, communication technology, and software required for the study of geographic data. Also provides an overview of data collection and analysis methods.

  • Burrough, Peter A., and Rachel A. McDonnell. 1998. Principles of geographical information systems. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provides an introduction to the theory and practice of GIS. Describes methods for modeling data, as well as the use and analysis of spatial data to solve problems. Concludes with insight on challenges in GIS as well as future developments and trends in the field.

  • Longley, Paul A., Michael F. Goodchild, David J. Maguire, and David W. Rhind. 2011. Geographic information systems and science. 3d ed. New York: Wiley.

    Comprehensive introduction to the field of GIS. Overviews GIS principles, techniques, and analysis, while paying special attention to certain topics, such as health, the New World Order, and geography. A final section on GIS management and policy provides practice-based information for choosing a GIS and implementing it effectively.

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