Environmental health atlas provides interactive portal to promote awareness
By Ashley Godfrey
In the presentation Dec 10, 2012, hosted by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., Lanphear described how his interactive document aims to raise awareness of the environment in health promotion and disease prevention, by making it easier to access the vast amounts of environmental health data the atlas integrates through its portal. He described the website as a work in progress, and sought both advice and input about it from the NIEHS community.
Lanphear is a professor at the Child and Family Research Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia. Lanphear, who is well known for his research on lead exposure and children’s health, said he hopes the atlas will attract a broader audience and raise awareness that the environment is an essential part of any effort to promote human health. “Who is out there selling environmental health?” asked Lanphear, as he pointed to the relatively small number of relevant, user-friendly resources currently available. “Not enough people know that the environment is key [to public health].”
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Bringing life to a flat concept
Lanphear explained how the idea for the atlas emerged from an advisory panel and began as a paper book, but evolved into the current website. He and his team envision the website working as a portal or moderated wiki page, where knowledge can be easily accessed and translated for a general audience.
By creating accurate but simple texts and graphics, Lanphear’s goal is for the atlas to become an active, living document. He and his collaborators have worked to create a website that is about 50 percent text, with several interactive maps and other graphics. Plans are to incorporate infographics, by creating representations that display complex information and encourage readers to interact as they navigate. To help explain key concepts, the team plans to use videos to break down these concepts into simple examples that can be easily understood.
Narrative and case studies will also be a part of the atlas, Lanphear said, in response to a suggestion from NIEHS epidemiologist Allen Wilcox, Ph.D. Lanphear agreed that people respond to a story, and noted that the key to a successful website is to use graphics and videos that make complex data and concepts easy to follow.
“The challenge is to making it data accessible to a broader audience, without jeopardizing accuracy,” stated Lanphear.
The website will be open to the public in 2013, but Lanphear’s plans extend beyond the launch of the Canadian health atlas. He wants to expand this concept into a world atlas of environmental health, providing access to collective data from all around the world. By doing this, Lanphear expects to see additional patterns emerging, graphically, to underscore the role research plays in linking the environment with public health.
There are also plans to expand the current version of the atlas to include embedded analytic software, giving users the ability to both access and analyze publicly available data sets. Lanphear said he would like to contract with science writers to help fill in some of the gaps. Currently, sections of the atlas on asbestos and lead exposure are nearly complete, but Lanphear hopes to provide more data, by adding many other chemicals and exposures.
One of the most important goals for the atlas is to help people link evidence of environmental exposures with disease or, conversely, link a specific disease with evidence that may exist for potential environmental influences. Not only will this type of data be useful for the public audience, but it also speaks to researchers and trainees working at the intersection of the environment and human health. Lanphear pointed out that his model could be applied to several of the goals in the new NIEHS strategic plan, by filling the niche of translational knowledge through data accessibility.
(Ashley Godfrey, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Molecular and Genetic Epidemiology Group in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis.)