Painting a Picture of Childhood Obesity with a Geographic Information System

By transforming complex geographic variables into a visual representation, GIS reveals relationships, patterns, and trends that help tell a story.

Dates of Project: February 2009 to February 2012

Field of Work: Combating childhood obesity

Problem Synopsis: By transforming complex variables into maps and other visual presentations, geographic information systems (GIS) reveal relationships, patterns, and trends that help tell a story. Although GIS has been widely used in business, government, and other fields, its use in the field of childhood obesity has been limited and poorly coordinated.

Synopsis of the Work: The Center for Applied Research and Environmental Systems (CARES) at the University of Missouri–Columbia sought to change that. It developed the Childhood Obesity Prevention Geographic Information System (COGIS) and launched it in January 2011.

The web-based mapping tool allows users to display the dynamic connections among people, the physical and social environment, and their health and well-being. Practicable Legacy Strategies, a public policy and consulting firm based in Philadelphia, monitored and supported the launch of COGIS.

We applaud working with county-level rankings, but we also need to go to neighborhood levels, we need to go to blocks, we need to go to schools.”—Monte Roulier, Community Initiatives

Key Results

  • COGIS has thousands of layers of national, state, county, and local data on children and youth, poverty, education, civic engagement, food, health, housing, the environment, and transportation.
  • Initial users included 117 RWJF national program offices and grantees focused on childhood obesity, including those working through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, Salud America, and Active Living Research.
  • Practicable Legacy Strategies developed a special issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (spring 2012) on using spatial mapping to improve health and promote interdisciplinary approaches to reducing childhood obesity.

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Chattanooga advocates used a new GIS tool to build support for a mobile fresh food market

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See how COGIS helped Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grantee plan route for Chattanooga mobile food van