Using Geospatial Technologies in Healthcare

The revolution of digital technology has brought outstanding changes to perceptions of data. With the combination of telecommunications infrastructure and internet accessibility, data generation has been easier than ever. Furthermore, machine learning technologies have added a new dimension to data analysis and interpretation. These advancements, along with big data availability, have provided new opportunities to analyze a wide variety of social and health phenomena.

For instance, geospatial knowledge has been applied to mapping the spread and impacts of pandemics like COVID-19, SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and other diseases. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, many governments and health organizations designed COVID-19 responses and control measures (e.g., digital contact tracing) with the help of GIS technologies. The near-real-time GIS-based tracking of COVID-19 cases (including fatalities, infection rates, and magnitude of disease spread) by the Johns Hopkins University had been one of the most reliable data sets during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the practice of recognizing and disclosing confidential geospatial data of individuals has been controversial and ethically questionable. 

At present, Internet mapping technologies have also become a common means of geodata collection, raising the ethical dilemma of data privacy, security and consent. Furthermore, robust applications of geospatial artificial intelligence (GeoAI) enables geospatial data to integrate census or survey data which can expose the identity and geographical location of specific individuals. Moreover, public health data modeling often includes biased, inaccurate predictions, which can influence decision-making in a given locality. When people participate in “aggregate and anonymous” surveys, they often run the risk of re-identification. Empirical evidence suggests that stigmatization against certain minority groups results in their real, lived fear of being frequently targeted for any social distress (eg. the spread of AIDS, COVID-19, or monkeypox). 

There is no doubt that health care systems have benefited from these geographical services. So how can ethical practices of geospatial data use in health research and application be ensured? Many scholars recommend mutual partnerships between digital tool developers and community organizations to exercise transparency and consciousness. While studying affected populations, principles of ethics must be practiced to ensure data privacy, security as well as future monitoring. The Locus Charter is an initiative of EthicalGEO, which proposes a set of universal principles to acknowledge the wider, shared understanding of risks and solutions relating to uses of location data, and aims to improve standards of practice while protecting the interest of individuals and society.