Mapping childhood obesity factors in Australia

By Andrew Collins
Tuesday, 05 March, 2013

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Councils in South Australia will soon have access to information to help reduce childhood obesity, thanks to a geographic information system (GIS) project at South Australia’s Department for Health and Ageing.

Dr Michelle Jones, of SA Health’s Obesity Prevention and Lifestyle (OPAL) program - which exists to promote healthy outcomes in children in South Australia - wanted a way to map community facilities that could impact health. Such factors include quality of playground equipment and food available in supermarkets.

Previously, SA councils would each collect their own data on such facilities, in different formats, using different methods of reviewing quality. Susie Butler, Standards & Quality Senior Manager, Information Systems, SA Health, describes it as a “midge modge”.

Armed with the information from the new GIS project, OPAL can give councils a detailed, up-to-date picture of risk factors and facilities that impact obesity in their jurisdictions. Councils can then, if they choose, reallocate resources where necessary to help curb child obesity.

The system can “help [councils] make decisions about where things are and where things maybe could be, and where they might want to put their resources”, Butler said.

As Jones explains, the recently passed Public Health Act in South Australia means “local governments take the lead around public health”.

The GIS system is a pilot program, targeting a selection of intervention communities located around SA.

“OPAL covers around a quarter of the population of children across South Australia. We selected three intervention communities and three comparison communities for this data collection, because we’re interested in monitoring what OPAL brings to these communities,” Jones said, where an ‘intervention community’ is one where OPAL has been funded.

“The Department of Health works very closely with the local governments, and they work together to deliver the OPAL program,” Jones said.

SA Health is using ArcGIS Online from Esri Australia for the project. SA Health uploads its own geodatabases into Esri’s secure cloud and adds base maps and layers of information such as street maps into that cloud.

The project’s data collectors downloaded the Esri app for SA Health’s solution from iTunes to their iPads.

“They were able to then download and see instantly that map we set up for that particular collection area,” Butler said.

Once on site, collectors could add extra information and photos of the facilities to the database.

“All of that instantly goes back up to the cloud and is accessible straight away to the office team. It was a two-way stream - the people out in the field could instantly see the existing information and they could upload new information or alter information if it was incorrect,” Butler said.

“We can use that then to make hard maps as well as potentially then use those layers that we’ve now got to potentially analyse it in future, to see if there’s any trends or any patterns, and to utilise particular GIS modelling using that information that’s been collected.”

Collectors assess facilities using checklists with specific items like the location and quality of drinking water fountains; the green space and types of structured equipment in playgrounds; and the presence of BBQ and toilet facilities - factors that influence the choice of location when families plan an outing with their children.

The team also sought to update the details of a food retail database, which was last updated in 2007, with recent information on supermarket stock. They therefore asked local supermarkets if collectors could peruse their wares and add information on available foods to the database.

Surprisingly, almost all of the 40-odd supermarkets that were asked gave permission - only three refused.

The pilot finished last Thursday, 28 February 2013, after an eight-week collection period. The project began to form a year ago, and has been properly active for about six months.

The next stage is for OPAL to distribute the collected information to the communities that have taken part in the project.

Jones said: “We’re also looking at University of South Australia to extend and link this data to other demographic data sources,” like the prevalence of childhood obesity in different areas.

“That’s the sort of work that we’d like to be able to do, but it is quite resource intensive and we really would like to draw on their expertise.”

SA Health has time booked on Esri’s cloud until September 2013. “It will really depend on how much interest we get from the councils. If the councils are all very keen, and everybody wants their own area done, and they want to carry on with it, then we’ll keep updating things and we’ll make an extension on our access to the cloud,” Butler said.

Given the team has only just finished the pilot program, it’s hard to gauge what the long-term picture will look like.

“We know there’s interest, there’s a lot of people very interested in what we’re doing. But how long that project will go on for - we can’t really say at the moment.”

Image credit © Zabloski

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