In recent years health science seems to have taken a “spatial turn” with a renewed interest in spatially oriented research. There are a number of reasons behind this rediscovery of “the power of maps”. One of the predominant drivers has been the development of Geographical Information Systems (GIS), software systems that can handle geographically referenced data. GIS is a very helpful tool to characterise neighbourhoods for a wide range of health-related studies. However, neighbourhoods can be defined in many different ways, and modifying the area unit used to delineate a neighbourhood affects the results of analyses. It is important for researchers to be aware of the effect the choice of neighbourhood can have on the analyses. A first fundamental step using GIS in health science is to have a good conceptual understanding of which physical environment to study exactly in relation to which health outcome or health behaviour. With a good conceptual understanding of the neighbourhood in focus, numerous meaningful variables can be derived from a GIS, as a series of examples demonstrates in this chapter. However, the quality of the parameters and analyses is highly dependent on the quality and scale of the available GIS data. With the increased use of GIS, the limitations of existing GIS data are becoming more apparent. However, we expect that methodological and technical developments will increase the usefulness and validity of using GIS-derived environmental parameters in health research, which in turn will increase the use of GIS in the future.
Neighbourhood Structure and Health Promotion, 2013, p. 127-152