Mike Stiehl, a senior policy analyst at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago and instructor of “Geographic Information Systems and Health Information” for the Biomedical Informatics (BMI) program, first started working with geographic information systems (GIS) in the mid-90s when the field was still in its infancy. There was limited public data available, only a single, very expensive piece of software, and public policy professionals hadn’t yet fully understood the critical role played by location in extracting meaning from data.
“It’s completely different today,” he says. “The array of open-source tools we have access to free online, along with the readily available troves of data—census data, crime data, city portal data, and more—means the barrier to using GIS to draw conclusions is virtually gone. Everyone now has access to at least some of the data government agencies use to design policy and programs. And that it’s all a very recent development means it’s a very exciting time to be involved with GIS.”
Having worked in transportation, education, as well as rural and urban planning, Stiehl, who has degrees in geography and urban planning, notes that the common theme to his career has been his use of GIS.
“For 20 years, I’ve tried to understand the impact of place on public policy,” he says. “In a way, I’ve been able to resist specialization and engage with so many fields because GIS ties everything together. Unlike working with most data, where you’re always looking for the common identifier, the link’s already there with GIS—it’s location.”
At Chapin Hall, Stiehl manages and provides data analysis and visualization for a variety of public policy areas, including child welfare, community development, education, and human services. As a senior policy analyst, he works to advance the integration of evidence and data in ways that produce better outcomes for the most vulnerable children and families.
He explains how these better outcomes come about by noting that “if you wanted to deploy a half-dozen community health centers across Chicago before GIS, you’d have distributed them throughout the city with the exact same array of services and levels of resources. But with GIS, now that you know diabetes is more prevalent in this area, or a lack of child care centers in another area, you can more intelligently allocate those resources and services in differentiated and customized ways depending on the breakdown of the surrounding neighborhood and its population.”
Stiehl has two main goals he hopes to impart students in “Geographic Information Systems and Health Information.” First, he hopes students leave with the GIS software skills to make maps of their own. In fact, in class, using QGIS, a free and open-source GIS software program, students will use data they find on their own to make a map, analyze it, and generate conclusions.
“I also want them to understand the unique ways GIS—and maps in general—distort images,” he says. “Making a map always involves privileging certain perspectives while pushing others to the side and it’s important to understand the sorts of misunderstandings that can arise when that happens.”
There are also implicit ethical concerns that arise when using a technology as powerful as GIS and the class will throw light on the various privacy risks and intrusions that go along with using personal data in conjunction with GIS.
“Ultimately, I think the key for health care professionals will be how GIS can reveal relationships, trends, and patterns that would not have been apparent using other data analysis applications,” he says. “This is particularly true because GIS applies across disciplines and in that way it’s well-suited to answer the kinds of complex multi-dimensional questions frequently found in the health care field.”