New Research Using Google Street View to Conduct Neighborhood ‘Virtual Audits’

Viewing 125th Street

Viewing 125th Street

We recently published three papers describing our use of Google Street View to conduct ‘virtual-audits’ to collect observational data on neighborhood characteristic and conditions.

A long established approach to collecting data on neighborhood conditions is to send trained observers to neighborhoods to collect data using standardized audit tools – an approach known as Systematic Social Observation and also Neighborhood Auditing.  Essentially observers go to specified blocks in a neighborhood and complete checklists noting the presence or absence of neighborhood amenities or disamenities.  However, this approach is time consuming – in our studies about 75% of researcher’s time is spent traveling to and from the observation sites – which limits the number of blocks that can be observed and the size and number of neighborhoods that can be included in a study.  As an alternative we have developed a system known as CANVAS (Computer Assisted Neighborhood Visual Assessment System) that uses Google Street View and a series of customized add-on tools to allow researchers to conduct neighborhood audits from their desk-tops. Continue reading

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BEH selected as charter members of the AIA Design and Health Research Consortium

Today the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the AIA Foundation, and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), named Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation as charter members of the AIA Design & Health Research Consortium, which will help fund basic research on how design affects public health (see the press release here and the Scientific American article here).  In September we teamed up with our friends Hilary Sample, Associate Professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and Dr. Karen Lee, who while at NYC DOHMH helped create NYC’s Active Design Guidelines, to submit a proposal to AIA’s Call for Qualifications and we were selected to join the consortium.

As part of the Consortium we will focus our research and translation activities on physical activity and identifying the ways in which architecture and urban design create built environments that support physically active lifestyles. While physical activity prevents cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and reduces blood pressure less than 50% of Americans meet current recommendations for activity.  The team will use GPS and GIS technologies to study how neighborhood built environments can support physical activity among residents of New York City and will develop methods to conduct similar research in Rio das Pedras, a favela community in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.   Our choice of research sites is motivated by two key UN projections: (1) by 2025, 379 million people are expected to live in megacities such as New York City and (2) by 2030, 2 billion people will live in “informal communities” such as Rio das Pedras.

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Latino USA on NPR covers our work on Hispanic immigrant women’s perspective on healthy foods

Latino USA, which is broadcast on NPR, did a story about our research findings on Hispanic immigrant women’s perspectives on healthy food and local neighborhood food access.  Our research used in-depth, hour long interviews to gather data on these women’s perspectives on healthy food and where they preferred to buy their food.  They generally reported being skeptical of the quality, freshness and flavor of produce and meat purchased in supermarkets and reported that even though the prices were higher, they preferred to buy produce and meat at farmer’s markets and small, local slaughter houses. They felt that these retail outlets provided food that more closely matched their values and preferences for food.  When we did a spatial analyses for a larger sample of Hispanic immigrant women, we found that having a farmer’s market in their residential neighborhood was associated with significantly higher consumption of fruit and vegetables.  Furthermore we found that having a farmer’s market and/or a small slaughter house in their neighborhood was associated with significantly higher consumption of meat.  Having local access to a supermarket was not associated with any of the measured dietary outcomes.

The Latino USA story can be heard here and the original research paper is here.

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Rio das Pedras Community Needs Assessment

View of a favella in Rio

View of a favella in Rio

The global rise of informal settlements have brought unique health challenges into the heart of urban centers. It is estimated that 2 billion people will live in informal urban settlements by 2030.  The 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics have brought renewed recognition of the informal favella communities of  Brazil.

Led by Dr. Gina Lovasi, we have teamed up with an interdisciplinary group of global experts to perform an initial community needs assessment in Rio das Pedras, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to assess the feasibility of large scale data collection on health, mobility, and the microbiome in these settings.

Electricity distribution in Rio das Pedras

Informal distribution of electricity in Rio das Pedras

Rio das Pedras is the third largest informal community in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Home to approximately 63,500 individuals, Rio das Pedras is a vibrant community, however residents of this favela face seasonal flooding, vehicle traffic, improvised construction methods, and limited waste disposal. These factors, coupled with limited access to municipal services and transportation likely predispose residents to injury and poor health. However, little reliable data exists that can accurately characterize the health of residents of Rio das Pedras, and fewer data that can point out areas of intervention that will be most impactful in these settings. As a result, little is known regarding the present health risks that exist throughout the community.

Through an initial community health diagnosis, our team will map the mobility and public health resources driving population health patterns across the favela. The team will also take an initial look at the microbiome of informal settlements and analyze the quality and use of water throughout Rio das Pedras. This preliminary needs assessment will begin to create a health profile of the population and highlight the areas of intervention that can most improve the health and living conditions of the residents of Rio das Pedras and surrounding areas of Rio de Janeiro.  Ultimately, this pilot will tailor and test a set of methods so future data collection efforts will more accurately reflect the needs of vulnerable populations living in these complex settings.

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There Goes the Neighborhood Effect: measurement error in the construction of neighborhood contextual measures

A lot of us in the neighborhood health effects field create or use neighborhood contextual measures that are aggregations of population data from the Census or other large social surveys. For instance, common measures of neighborhood level socio-economic status, such as poverty rate, per capita income, and median household income, are all derived from Census data on individual respondents’ self-reported household income. Our recent work has asked the question: what is the effect on our estimates of association between a neighborhood level socioeconomic variable and an individual level health outcome when the individual self-reports on income to the Census include random measurement error? Continue reading

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Neighborhood Park Access and Park Quality and Body Mass Index among Residents of NYC

Preventive Medicine just published our paper on neighborhood park access and BMI among residents of New York City.  These analyses were part of our ongoing work the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to analyze their health surveillance data in conjunction with measures of neighborhood context.  In this report we showed that higher neighborhood park access and the quality of those parks (extent to which parks were free of graffiti, litter, trash and broken glass) were associated with lower BMI scores among residents.  This report also showed that higher neighborhood walkability was associated with lower BMI, while neighborhood poverty and homicide rates were associated with higher BMI for residents.

The graph below plots, after adjustment for differences in survey respondent’s socio-demographic characteristics, the difference in BMI, and the 95% confidence interval, associated with differences equivalent to the inter-quartile range in neighborhood conditions across NYC zip codes.


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DOHMH releases Data Brief on Neighborhood Walkability and Physical Activity


Neighborhood Walkability in New York City

The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene just released a Data Brief describing our collaborative research using data from the Physical Activity and Transit (PAT) Survey to study neighborhood walkability and physical activity in NYC.  This survey used GPS and accelerometer devices to measure physical activity for up to seven days and allows us to understand how residents use their neighborhoods and how much activity occurs in different settings across NYC.  Compared to survey respondents living in neighborhoods the lowest quartile of neighborhood walkability, those that lived in neighborhoods in the highest quartile engaged in 100 additional minutes of moderate equivalent activity per week.   More details about our work on the project can be seen here.

Streetsblog NYC posted about the Data Brief and some of the other work we have been doing on walkability in NYC.

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Food Policy Breakfast at Hunter College

Andrew Rundle presented recent work by BEH on food environments in New York City at the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College’s event “Food Policy for Breakfast: Food Policy Research in NYC- What do we know? Where do we need to go?”.  Hunter College posted video from the event to YouTube, including Dr. Rundle’s talk and the group Q&A and discussion.

Q&A and Discussion part 1

Q&A and Discussion part 2

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Python script to process and merge NYC MapPLUTO data


Daniel Sheehan

We are happy to share a python script that downloads and compiles all of the current and archived New York City (NYC) Department of City Planning’s (DCP) MapPluto versions into a single file geodatabase with feature datasets for each year-version. BEH GIS team developed the script to save time and effort in  downloading, unzipping and merging all this data by hand.  We hope this script will save time for anyone else who wishes to compile all this data. The script is based on an in-house urllib script for mining tract shapefiles by state from the US Census Bureau and was developed by Daniel Sheehan.

Click the link to get the Script link
Click the link to get the Readme link

More about the public release of MapPLUTO data…

Continue reading

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Beyond Your Waist and Lungs: BEH Investigates Pedestrian Injury Risk

While most of our work to date has been concerned with physical activity, obesity and asthma, the built environment can also shape injury risk.  Nearly 5,000 pedestrians in the U.S. are killed by motor vehicles ever year, and a small number of high-risk intersections account for a substantial proportion of vehicle-pedestrian collisions.  Modification of the road and pedestrian environment where collisions occur is an attractive potential intervention both to save lives and to promote pedestrian and cycling activity (active transport). Previous research on the relationship between  pedestrian environment characteristics and collision risk has uncovered counter-intuitive findings, including that crosswalks may pose an increase in risk to older pedestrians, but research on pedestrian injuries has been limited due, in part, to the high cost of visiting collision sites and comparison intersections to collect data on intersection characteristics.

We were recently awarded a pilot grant from the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University Medical Center to investigate the relationship between pedestrian environment characteristics in New York City, as assessed using our CANVAS tool, and the risk of a pedestrian-motor vehicle collision serious enough to warrant a police report.  Using CANVAS, we expect to be able to collect data much more efficiently than in-person audits have been able to, unlocking a new data source to understand which intersection modifications can best reduce collisions between cars and people.


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