LawAtlas: Exploring Public Health Laws and Policies that Work to Improve Public Health

Nov 6, 2012, 11:56 AM

Public Health Law Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation housed at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, released a comprehensive online portal called LawAtlas that allows users to explore variation in laws across U.S. states and over time. Having more information about state laws, and their effect on health over time, is a critical step toward understanding what works to improve health. LawAtlas offers:

  • Interactive Law Maps to show how certain laws differ by state and how they have changed over time.
  • Policy Surveillance Reports to summarize the state of various public health laws across the country
  • Data that public health law researchers can work with to expand upon existing research

NewPublicHealth caught up with Damika Webb, JD, Law Fellow at the Center for Health Law Policy and Practice at Temple University, at last week’s APHA Annual Meeting to chat about LawAtlas and how it can be used to better understand why policy surveillance is critical, and what we can learn from a program like LawAtlas.

NewPublicHealth: Why is it important to conduct research to know whether particular laws and policies are working to improve public health?

Damika Webb: By measuring the dimensions of a law, you can figure out which components of the law are having a positive or negative effect on health outcomes.

NPH: Why is it important to track how public health laws and policies differ from state to state?


Damika Webb: LawAtlas helps us conduct policy surveillance, or a way to measure law over time and space.

Each state may have a law that covers a particular public health outcome, whether that law governs distracted driving or nurse practitioner prescribing. The laws that are meant to drive those outcomes vary across state lines. When you look at the research, you may find that a given law may not actually have the intended effect on health outcomes. But, many laws are innovative, so the research doesn’t exist yet. When you can track laws over time and measure them against other data, you can tell whether the law affected the change it was meant to or not. By tracking which states have which laws, and by beginning to identify common features among state laws, we can often apply the research. If the law isn’t effective, maybe it shouldn’t be there. If a feature of the law is effective, then maybe that feature should be adopted in states where it is missing.

NPH: What’s the value of the new LawAtlas tool, and how do you expect it to be used?

Damika Webb: We see many values in LawAtlas. The public-facing website has value for the practitioner, the researcher and the media. As a visitor to the site, you can generate interactive maps to see different features of different laws in all 50 states. We also have a reporting section that has reports that give an overview of the law topics presented on the site, like distracted driving, concussion laws, syringe access, and more. These reports are high-level overviews of the way the law presently looks across the United States. For researchers, we have a section of the site that includes the protocols and codebooks, as well as the entire datasets, so they can replicate the data if they need to or use it in their own research.

In addition to the front-facing website, the site has another component called the the Workbench. It is a comprehensive online system where the law can be stored and coded over time. This system is actually what we use to create many of the maps, reports and datasets you see on the front-facing website. It’s a platform others can use to make working with public health law data easier. When laws change, this system lets you make a change dynamically without having to recreate work or lose previous work. This will help researchers track laws over time indefinitely. You never have to go back to the paper table you made last summer. We are rolling it out now to be used by other organizations. 


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.