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Mapping Aids Person-Environment Insight

GIS Technology Assists Research on Social Problems

Mapping helps test theories about environment's role in human activities.

Just how much are people affected by their environment and vice versa? Thanks to technology, for some researchers the answer is becoming clearer. The use of mapping computers to uncover traits of social problems is gaining ground in higher education, and social work is already garnering the rewards of this fast-growing practice.

While the geographic information system (GIS) has been in use for years in the fields of community planning and development, the magic of the system is being put to the test in social research at several universities.

Amy Hillier, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, holds an MSW as well as a doctorate in social welfare. She is among the staff who use GIS technology to help researchers and others devise theories of social behavior.

"GIS represents a new technology that allows social workers to reinvigorate this traditional emphasis on understanding people in their environment," she said.

GIS maps land use, but it also factors in other data culled from a variety of sources to test theories about human activities and whether environment has a role in them.

Some examples of data include a city's home sales, police reports and student records. The institutions that use government and school data have confidentiality agreements governing use of the information.

Unlike U.S. census data, GIS can delve further into detail, and programs can be designed to measure people's behaviors in the context of their surroundings.

Some recent studies using GIS ask such questions as, "Does where kids live affect their odds of becoming victims of obesity?" and, "Do gun shootings more likely happen in neighborhoods where there are more bars and alcohol stores?"

Social work's role in the use of mapping to study social issues started more than a century ago.

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