Man with clip-on thermometer

VA seeks GIS to track and treat outbreaks, chronic disease

The Veterans Affairs Department issued a request for information on a geographic information system that would help the agency track outbreaks and chronic disease in veterans in order to improve overall care.

Interested vendors were to explain how they could provide Esri ArcGIS or equal software to create, organize and share geographic information and tools through online maps and Web and smartphone apps.

Already, Esri’s GIS technology is being used “to track the prevalence of chronic conditions [diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc.] and informing policymakers as to where interventions will be most successful based on spatial analysis,” said Laura McNulty, manager of Esri’s National Government Health and Sciences team. 

“Location is the common denominator across multiple business systems, so various data ‘layers’ can be mashed up to derive evidence-based analysis.” 

A map service that VA already uses to help members of Congress understand veteran constituent groups runs  on ArcGIS Online, Esri’s cloud-based implementation, McNulty said.

“Publicly available data can sit up in our cloud service called ArcGIS Online, and anyone who wants to build a map can do a search on veterans and pull that data into their map,” she said. “When they hover over a particular geographic area, the veteran population data will pop up.”

The RFI states that the software VA seeks must be able to handle data sets larger than 35 terabytes and location analytics in addition to being interoperable with technology in place at Homeland Security and other national security partners.

Obstacles to adopting ArcGIS would be few, if any, McNulty said, because the RFI seeks to expand the current footprint of what VA is already using. “They’ve invested in our platform already,” she said.

McNulty cited the VA Public Health Surveillance and Research unit’s use of ArcGIS as an example of how the department might use the system sought in the RFI.

Using internal data from VA hospitals, the unit monitors admissions to see if the incidences of flu, for instance, are rising. “They can also [through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] watch to see where new outbreaks are predicted to occur,” she said. “They use that information to make sure veterans are being vaccinated in advance of these things happening.”

The unit uses data sets including codes for the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems and information on purchases of over-the-counter drugs, to see if there are spikes in cough or allergy medicine sales.

“They mash up all of that data to then look for those aha moments,” McNulty said.

Although the RFI is targeted more at a group that handles emergency planning and response, many of the same processes would fit, she added.

Many government agencies use GIS data for tracking trends. At the end of 2013, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency issued its own RFI for creating a central database of actionable information to anticipate and detect regions in distress called Project GeoAnalytics.

Another example is CPD Maps, which is part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s eCon Planning Suite. Hosted on HUD’s enterprise GIS platform, which is built on ArcGIS for Server, it’s a geospatial application that helps grantees target aid based on where need is highest.

VA anticipates the contract length to be one year and the type a firm fixed-price task order, although that could change once VA extends a request for proposals.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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