Mapping for better healthcare

1 November 2011

A Knowledge Transfer Partnership between Dr. Foster Intelligence (DFI) and UCL is helping healthcare providers plan and better implement strategies for their local areas.


Healthcare data made easy

Professor Muki Haklay of the Department of Civil, Environment and Geomatic Engineering at UCL is working with DFI to provide functional and easy to understand data for various areas of healthcare. DFI is a public-private partnership between the NHS, the Department of Health, and Dr. Foster – a spin-out company from Imperial College London. It processes data supplied by the NHS to create information that helps local providers such as hospitals, GPs and Primary Care Trusts manage their services and understand performance indicators over time.

The data used ranges from number of patients in a particular ward or cultural spread in the surrounding area to drug and service demand at a specific GP practice. DFI develop web-based software that enables healthcare managers to analyse and make sense of the data. How the information is presented is key to its usability and Prof. Haklay has worked hard to overcome this difficulty: ‘They [DFI] realised it would be very useful to present this information with added mapping, but did not have all the necessary knowledge in house,’ he says. ‘It’s not as simple as putting numbers on a map – doing it in a way that makes it meaningful for their clients was the real challenge.’

Working closely with geography graduate Jessica Wardlaw, he aimed to map the data to provide geographical context for the end-user and enable them to understand the provenance of admissions. The pair were tasked with working out exactly what DFI hoped to gain from the project: ‘It involved a whole range of tasks, from arranging a suitable license for the map data, to looking at how well the end-users understand the information. This enabled us to improve the cartography used to present the information, and evaluate the best way to integrate the maps within the application they were developing.’

Local knowledge

The result was an application that is able to convert tables and charts of large, complex datasets into an easily readable and clear map that can be instrumental in delivering services in local areas. There are numerous uses for this data, from planning placement of new GP practices, to increasing supply of a specific drug to pharmacies in areas where there is a particular demand. The data can be used by specific hospitals too, to plan better use of ward and bed space. There is even a use for it in social marketing, where the information can be used to identify specific communities with poor health and access to healthcare services. NHS Wiltshire, for example, have been working with DFI to improve how they assess local health needs, to be more relevant to local communities and support more effective commissioning.

One vision

DFI continue to work with Prof. Haklay, and Jessica has enrolled for an Engineering Doctorate at UCL with their backing. ‘We focused on this specific aspect of usability and interaction with the maps but the overall impact comes from how all the information – graphs, maps and tables – works together. It’s this holistic understanding that enables us to develop products that encourage users to look at the way information is visualised, or think about new ways they can use and interact with it.’