What’s in a name? The route to better health in Camden, thanks to a ground-breaking UCL classification system

12 April 2012

Camden PCT

Business wants to know who’s likely to buy life assurance. Public services want to find out who’s at risk of developing diabetes. Geodemographic profiling may help provide the answers.

Leading the research into this growing field is Professor Paul Longley in UCL’s Department of Geography. Hoping to use his methodology to reduce health inequalities in culturally diverse Camden, UCL worked closely with Camden Primary Care Trust (PCT) in a three-year Knowledge Transfer Partnership. As intended by a KTP, all partners benefited: the PCT reported better health and substantial cost savings; UCL created a names classification tool which has attracted worldwide interest; and the Graduates who carried out the research have established flourishing academic careers.

The Challenge

Geodemographic profiling and spatial analysis are obtuse terms for most people, but analysing people – and their habits – according to where they live makes good commercial sense, helping companies to predict who is likely, say, to buy organic vegetables or book a weekend trip to Rome. At UCL, Paul Longley, Professor of Geographic Information Science in the Department of Geography, was interested to know if the practices used by the private sector could be applied effectively to public services to find out, for example, where teenage pregnancy rates or visits to GPs were likely to be highest.

The Partners

UCL entered into a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Camden Primary Care Trust (PCT) to develop and utilise a geographic information system (GIS) for neighbourhood level profiling of the various factors influencing health and to inform public health and health care interventions.

KTP is Europe’s leading programme which offers mutual benefits to all partners – organisations improve their competitiveness and productivity through access to academic knowledge and expertise, while the university enhances the business relevance of their research and teaching.

The Company Partner

Camden is as diverse as any borough in London, with 87 nationalities speaking around 120 languages. There are huge discrepancies in terms of wealth, educational attainment and levels of health. The PCT had mixed success in encouraging different population groups to come forward for health screening and wanted to know whether its healthcare programmes and communications could be better directed.

The Academic Partner

Professor Longley undertook background research in order to test his hypothesis in a “great geodemographic laboratory right on our doorstep”. As lead academic on the programme, he says: “It was a very good testing ground for us to identify new ways of targeting different interventions using our methodology.”

The Associates

With funding to the tune of £267,000 from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Technology Strategy Board, two Associates, each with project-specific skills, were hired from among UCL’s recent M.Sc. graduates. Kate Jones applied geographical information systems (GIS) and geodemographics to implement a health profiling system, while Pablo Mateos worked to develop a classification system and a birthplace geocoder that would assign patient name records into cultural, ethnic and linguistic groups.

The Outcomes and Impact

The infrastructure that the Associates put in place at Camden PCT enabled the Trust to target their communications more effectively and develop tailored marketing campaigns and recruitment policies. The Trust reported particular success in helping residents to give up smoking, which is believed to have led to substantial savings through reductions in hospital admissions and GP consultations.
Dr Laidon Shapo, then Research Officer, Public Health Intelligence, said of the KTP: “The work of the Associates has introduced us to innovative research and will allow us to better support our public health initiatives.”

The three-year collaboration proved a great springboard for launching the Associates’ careers – both successfully completed PhDs on related topics and have since become geography lecturers, Kate at Portsmouth University and Pablo at UCL. Pablo says: “This unique programme allowed me to develop my career in applied academic research, providing me with access to a world-class university and an NHS organisation with a strong research perspective.”

The partnership went on to win the UCL Knowledge Transfer Partnership Award at the UCL Awards for Enterprise in 2009, and led to a series of exciting collaborations with other organisations, such as the Wellcome Trust. A second KTP with Professor Longley and Southwark PCT profiled the use of A&E facilities among different communities. With research funds totalling almost £5 million, Professor Longley and his team have developed more enhanced and complex names-based classification techniques and tools. The software has been licensed to 19 organisations across the world, including Princeton University and NHS Scotland.

The Department of Geography has also been at the vanguard of the public’s growing interest in geo-genealogy, developing popular websites for those who want to research their family history and cultural heritages in Great Britain (www.gbnames.publicprofiler.org) and worldwide (www.worldnames.publicprofiler.org). The work has attracted enormous interest in the media, featuring in National Geographic. Several interactive exhibits, including one for ‘Who am I?’ at the London Science Museum, have improved public understanding of science.

Paul says: “The KTP with Camden PCT allowed us to achieve multiple goals. Perhaps we can have it all…academic success, real-world relevance and do a good job for the broader community.”