Stitching together health data and GIS for better decision-making
An enterprise geographic information systems platform is how the Washington Department of Health aims to get more useful data into the hands of health officials.
The Washington Department of Health is embarking on a five-year data modernization journey and incorporating geographic information systems into agency operations is one crucial stop along the way.
The agency is rolling out a centralized, integrated GIS platform called GeoHUB where users can layer various department datasets over location information within the state. The project aims to leverage adaptive technology that bolsters data-driven decisions among government officials, the agency announced in December. GeoHUB is slated for full implementation in the first quarter of fiscal year 2023.
Other priorities include restructuring the agency’s cloud data center, piloting an online workforce training and development portal, and improving electronic health records management.
“The way that systems have been developed and funded for public health has not made it easy to use our datasets together in the way that can really help drive decision-making in an emergency or in our regular work,” Michelle Campbell, the department’s director for the center of data and systems modernization, said. “By modernizing our infrastructure, we will be able to respond more quickly to emergencies or identify trends early that could lead us to identifying a potential outbreak or emergency in a community.”
The GeoHUB portal facilitates more consistent data results and reporting, Campbell said. “If we're all working from the same data layer, then we're going to consistently get the same results because we're using the same agreed upon dataset,” she said.
The platform also increases data visibility, so a staff member could enter the portal and see what data already exists that could improve their work, she said. Otherwise, a siloed approach limits agencies to use content-specific data. For instance, someone working in disease surveillance may have case data available but could benefit from additional input to break out of a “one dimensional view of the health and needs of a community,” she said.
Geospatial information also helps pinpoint access to services across the state. Using the portal, staff can analyze the state’s transportation network and the location of dialysis facilities to identify where residents may have to drive an hour or more for crucial services, the department’s GIS analyst Craig Erickson said. With an improved data system, officials can implement equitable target interventions to increase service access and improve a community’s health, Campbell added.
The hub includes dashboards and story maps to “help the viewer understand the content in a visual way that can make sense to them without just looking at tables of data and trying to glean information from that,” Campbell said. “It makes it easier for people to understand the data and how it impacts them.”
The platform contains an internal set of servers that hosts data just for staff use as well as external servers for a publicly accessible version, Erickson said. For internal use, user authentication such as single sign-on is required to access the data, Campbell added, and no personally identifiable information is stored in the portal to protect residents’ privacy.
Stocking up the platform’s data supply can be done in a variety of ways, including survey tools that upload information into the portal, uploading files manually or setting up direct connections from a source system to the hub. Direct connections enable automated data pulls from the source system so data is transmitted on a cadence depending on a program’s needs. Some health updates require near real time data exchanges, but others may get by on a monthly basis. “The frequency of updates needed drives the method of how data is brought into GeoHub,” Campbell said.
“We want to build an efficient public health system that enables staff to do the work instead of spending a lot of time on data transformations or manually linking data, so having a more consistent ecosystem across the agency enables us to do that work efficiently and reduce duplication of efforts,” Campbell said.