Health planning in Sudbury and District, Ontario and how mapping software is helping planners answer questions about local communities

InstantAtlas in action

The public health system in Ontario, Canada is made up of 36 non-profit public health agencies, together with the Public Health Branch of Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, public health laboratories, primary health care providers and Public Health Ontario . The Sudbury & District Health Unit (SDHU) is one of these public health agencies and Marc Lefebvre Manager, Population Health Assessment and Surveillance explains how it has been using InstantAtlas to help planners understand local health needs.

What is your project?

As a health unit we often get requests for information about the demographics of the local population. We realised that we could provide some basic demographic information in an online tool using the Canadian census data. The idea was to give health planners the chance to find the information themselves and then ask more detailed questions about how one area might compare with another, for example. Planners can use census information on population counts, rates of growth and density to create a broad profile of their communities.

How did you come across InstantAtlas mapping software?

I was using InstantAtlas before I joined the health unit. I’ve been involved in GIS work for many years and have seen how useful the mapping software can be to present data to non-GIS experts. However, the attraction goes beyond maps. I understand the pitfalls of relying on maps, and the beauty of InstantAtlas is that it provides the detail, which means it adds plenty of value for someone who uses information for planning.

How did you get started?

Our starting point was census data because this data is available at a very granular level, which means we can provide very detailed analysis. We initially used the 2006 Canadian Census data at multiple levels of geography. Census data at the smaller level of geography are available for all dissemination areas (DA) across the SDHU service area, as well as the Census Subdivision (municipal/townships/reserves) and Census Division (districts/counties). The intention was to show information at multiple levels and allow users to select variables related to determinants of health such as income, education, family structure and so on. So we selected around 20 relevant indicators from 2006 Census.

What sort of feedback have you had on the interactive maps?

As a small Division with limited resources, one of the challenges we have faced is making sure the tool is fully implemented. We also have a wide range of users within the health unit, and some of them simply want to see an Excel spreadsheet so they can analyse the data themselves. At the other end of the scale, we have users who don’t want to get involved in that sort of analysis.

So we have asked a group of testers to give us feedback on ease of use and any glitches that they may come across. We will then develop a user guide and share the tool more widely.


How are you going to develop the interactive maps?

We are interested in combining the census data with health outcome data so that we can develop a tool that will provide detailed analysis at a municipal and possibly at neighbourhood level. We are also currently considering whether to make the tool available online, and we are exploring opportunities with a network of agencies which between them form a consortium of data sharers. This includes organisations from multiple sectors, such as healthcare, social and children’s services and planning, police, education, municipal government, and public health. All are interested in developing community profiles - this means having a common platform.

What are the benefits of using this mapping software?

  • InstantAtlas is providing easy access to socio demographic information that is otherwise hidden in spreadsheets
  • The planning process in a rural area is being helped along by easy access to the census data
  • Mapping software makes data easy to visualise for a range of planners who do not have GIS expertise.

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