Loma Linda Opens Geoinformatics Lab
Data to help health professionals

, Office of University Relations, writing from Loma Linda, California

MPROVING HEALTH isn’t only about anatomy and physiology. Sometimes geography contains the key health professionals need in order to help people. Loma Linda University’s (LLU) new health geoinformatics laboratory trains students to use geospatial thinking and technology to aid in solving health problems, not one person at a time but entire groups of people at time.

The GIS laboratory has come a long way from its start as one computer in a storage room of Nichol Hall at the Adventist Church-owned university. After growing and moving through the years, geographic information systems now has a permanent, state-of-the-art home in the newly opened Centennial Complex. A dedication was held on December 7.

The new suite features two laboratories, each outfitted with 20 new 24-inch Apple iMac computers. Between the labs, with glass walls looking into each classroom, is a smaller room providing office space as well as two additional computers for students who are employed by the GIS lab. Such students can now do their work and gain valuable experience at any time, regardless of class schedules.

NEW LAB: Students at Loma Linda University work in the new Geoinformatics lab, which was formally dedicated on December 7.
This is quite an upgrade from the lab’s most recent home in LLU’s Randall Visitors Center, where there were 20 workstations in one room, each outfitted with a 5-year-old computer, some of which did not have enough memory to run necessary programs.

“These labs are really changing the landscape, if you will, as far as our capacity and efficiency are concerned,” says Seth Wiafe, academic director of health geoinformatics programs.

One thing the new facilities will allow the GIS staff to do is offer more workshops. For the past two years, they have offered a three-day workshop on HAZUS-MH, disaster preparedness program that has been attended by individuals such as public health department employees.

“Our goal is actually to become a FEMA training site for California for that particular application,” says Wiafe. “The lab facility is going to make that happen.”

They can also offer workshops to students, faculty, and the public who don’t need to take a whole GIS course but want to learn aspects such as GPS or Google Earth applications.

In addition to classes and workshops, the GIS lab takes on real-world projects for staff and students. These have included mapping the medical product donation systems in Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia in order to develop a more effective method for getting supplies to where they are needed. Another example was developing a IS system that makes it easier for the Los Angeles nonprofit organization CoachArt to match children who have chronic illnesses with coaches to teach them new skills in arts and athletics.

And now, because of the new lab facilities, even more projects are possible. Two of these are benefiting the LLU campus. The first was to make visible to Centennial Complex visitors LLU’s global service locations, as well as the locations of Adventist institutions and their activities. A large touchscreen in the lobby allows users to navigate around the globe to see what kinds of outreach are being done in various places.

When D. P. Harris, LLU vice president for information systems, and a team were brainstorming about this project, he says they immediately thought of the GIS lab’s ability to visualize information and make it compelling. With one five-minute phone call to Andrew Haglund, assistant professor of health geoinformatics, Harris was able to figure out what might have taken days.

The other project the GIS lab is working on involves georeferencing the water utilities on campus to provide an accurate depiction of the locations of pipes, valves, backflow, and branches. The computerized map will show which types of valves are in which locations and will eliminate guesswork. Students also support this project.

Wiafe says the new lab helps fulfill LLU’s global mission. “I think because of the nearly endless possibilities of health geoinformatics, we will be able to provide a better spatial information support system for those whose lives are touched by Loma Linda University,” he says. “GIS can also help provide future health professionals with a valuable tool to understand the impact of our environment on human health, thereby improving better analytical decision-making toward ‘making man whole.’”

Classes began in the new lab on September 28, 2009. “The new space brings a fresh new look and radically improved technology for our students and faculty to use,” says Haglund.

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