Promoting Human Well-Being

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So much of our health is determined by where we live. The quality of the air we breathe, our access to health care and our ability to walk in our neighborhoods are just some of the factors that can make the difference between a healthy lifestyle and one that has negative risk factors.

At the USC Spatial Sciences Institute, we draw upon multi-disciplinary sciences to improve public health in communities, regions and even globally. In our research and academic programs, we work with geography and geospatial intelligence, demography, remote sensing, epidemiology, sociology, preventive medicine, global health, and many other fields to find solutions that improve human well-being.

Our priorities include:

  • connecting genetics, physical and cultural environments and human behavior to clarify the causes of various health endpoints;
  • documenting the human experience over individual lifespans;
  • exploring the physical and cultural characteristics of places and how they evolve over time; and
  • adding community vital signs to electronic health systems to support precision medicine and improve patient care.

GeoHealth Research Projects

Professor John P. Wilson and his research team work with the Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute (SC-CTSI) to connect environmental exposures and social determinants of health with electronic health records.

In its collaboration with the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Institute (SCEHSC), Dr. Wilson's group is supporting the spatiotemporal modeling of various kinds of exposures across geographic scales.

Other new projects include:

  • a large NIH-funded study using a natural experiment to examine the contextual effects on cardiometabolic health;
  • a project to predict the health benefits that would follow a series of proposed urban design interventions to reduce vehicle emissions in the City of Los Angeles;
  • a COVID-19 project with colleagues from the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the USC Price School of Public Policy that is examining the perturbations to the food ecosystem in Los Angeles County;
  • a project with Esri and the USC Marshall School of Business to a spatial model of the medical supply chains for the U.S.; and
  • a study to explore the relationships between air pollution and a variety of COVID-19 outcomes in California.

Estimating Unmet Surgical Needs

Faculty, staff and students in SSI’s Wilson Map Lab have modeled the service areas of local hospitals and the impact of the 21 Operation Smile missions on children with oral cleft problems in Madagascar. The global nonprofit Operation Smile has treated 2,872 children there in the past 13 years, but the published estimates of the prevalence of oral clefts coupled with the number of births per year and inventory of local facilities suggest there is still unmet surgical needs in in that country.

Developing Citizen Scientists

Human Well-Being | USC SSI
In 2016-2017, a team of geodesign majors organized elementary school students to gather and analyze data about their sun exposure in playgrounds as part of the university’s “SunSmart” outreach program to reduce the risk of melanoma and skin cancers in young people. Under the direction of Myles C. Cockburn, professor of preventive medicine, dermatology and spatial sciences with the Keck School of Medicine of USC, Darren M. Ruddell, associate professor (teaching) of spatial sciences and Jennifer N. Swift, associate professor (teaching) of spatial sciences, the undergraduate researchers then coordinated a workshop in which the elementary school students contributed their ideas for constructing shade structures.

Connecting Physical Activity and Place

Human Well-Being | USC SSI

Population, Health and Place Ph.D. student Li Yi presented his paper “Methodologies for integrating GPS, GIS, and accelerometry to construct momentary built environment contexts of physical activity: A systematic review” at the 2019 Active Living Conference, the premier multi-disciplinary conference for research about activity-friendly communities and one of the most prestigious conferences on physical activity and obesity research. Yi’s research explores how geographic information systems (GIS), global positioning systems (GPS) and ecological momentary assessment (EMA) can be combined to study how daily exposures to environmental factors such as air pollutants, the built environment and social contexts influence physical activity behaviors and outcomes.

Linking Place with Chronic Diseases

Human Well-Being | USC SSI“The GeoDesign curriculum along with a public health minor gave me a unique framework to look at health disparities that manifested through place, a critical variable that has historically been overlooked in the analytical phases of public health research. As a graduate student in epidemiology, I continue to apply my interest in place and other neighborhood-level variables onto chronic disease outcomes such as obesity and cardiovascular disease. I ultimately hope to build upon current theoretical frameworks and methods in causal inference that allow researchers to better understand how variables act differently at scale and use this information to create more effective and adaptive health policy.” – Alex Chen, B.S. GeoDesign ’18; Columbia University, Master of Public Health ’20.