Existing Endeavors

Before discussing the data themselves, we describe several notable endeavors that seek to compile, creatively link, analyze or report data including environmental public health information.  Some of these focus upon establishing specific tools, while others aim for broader collaborative efforts. Through describing them, we hope to increase awareness and discussion about collaboration and encourage sharing of resources.

We briefly outline the following projects:

·         The PCIEP Roadmap, convened by the PA Department of Environmental Protection

·         The data gaps survey of the H.J. Heinz III Center for Science, Economics & the Environment’s Nation’s Ecosystems Report

·         Building Environmental Health Capacity, a project of the Allegheny County Health Department

·         The Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Indicators Report, produced by Sustainable Pittsburgh and AtKisson, Inc.

·         The Southwestern Pennsylvania Indicators Consortium, spearheaded by John G. Craig, Jr.

·         The Community Information Commons, by MAYA Design and 3 Rivers Connect

·         HS.net, a project of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, the United Way of Allegheny County and 3 Rivers Connect

·         SOVAT (Spatial OLAP Visualization and Analytical Tool), by Matthew Scotch and Bambang Parmanto, University of Pittsburgh University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences

·         Info-Pitt, spearheaded by the University of Pittsburgh’s University Center for Social and Urban Research

·         CDC Environmental Public Health Tracking (state level), a project of the Pennsylvania Department of Health

Data inventory and Quality Assessments

PCIEP Roadmap Project

The Pennsylvania Consortium for Interdisciplinary Environmental Policy (PCIEP) consists of Pennsylvania organizations including the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, 52 colleges and universities, and Sustainable Pittsburgh.  At least seven of these organizations are within the Pittsburgh region.  PCIEP is devoted to “improving environmental policy and understanding through government and academic cooperation that encourages interdisciplinary analysis and discourse,” and its four program committees include one on “Human Health and the Environment”.[12]

PCIEP recently formulated a Roadmap Project with the following overall objective: “to develop the knowledge base to help ensure that the activities and resources directed at improving the state of environmental health in Pennsylvania are appropriately deployed”.  Among the “unknowns” noted in its draft plan are the following:[13]

·         The ability to spatially locate the diseases expected to have environmental causes, and the exposures that may be the causes

·         The geographic relationship between exposures and potentially linked diseases

·         The extent to which monitoring information already collected by DEP and others is helpful in linking environmental exposures and outcomes

·         The comparative risks of exposures that may be linked to health outcomes


As the focus of PCIEP is statewide, regional environmental health data endeavors could be coordinated with PCIEP.   

National Ecosystems Data Gaps Survey

The H.J. Heinz III Center for Science, Economics & the Environment in Washington, DC conducted a 2003 survey to prioritize filling the data gaps identified in its 2002 State of the Nation’s Ecosystems Report.[14]  Of 103 ecosystem indicators utilized, partial or complete gaps existed for more than half.  This included indicators linkable to public health, such as land use, total impervious area (e.g., parking lots and roads), soil chemical contamination, and publicly accessible open space per resident.  Data priorities identified “will be combined with detailed cost estimates for each of the data gaps for presentation to non-governmental data providers, federal agencies, key committees in Congress, and others.”  The results will appear in their 2007 State of the Nation’s Ecosystems report.  While national in focus, the results are pertinent because some important environmental health datasets (e.g., the EPA Toxics Release Inventory) are compiled and maintained at the national level.  Also, because federal reporting requirements drive the state and local data collection priorities of many government agencies, many data gaps are likely to be similar across regions nationwide.

Indicators Development

Indicators are useful as metrics for designing program agendas and gauging program impacts. There are a number of local initiatives already underway to track and develop indicators useful for setting goals and monitoring trends.  As these often involve discussions on data inventory and quality, we include some of them here.

Building Environmental Capacity for Allegheny County

In 2000, the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) entered into a cooperative agreement with the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) to improve their environmental health capacity, beginning by inviting a national public health expert panel to discuss four focus questions regarding environmental health indicators.  These questions included, “Where does one find the data for the environmental indicators?“  They noted that data may come from a variety of sources outside of traditional public health programs, but “may not be readily accessible or located in a central repository.” [15] 

Since then, (ACHD) has produced a proposed set of 124 environmental health indicators for 11 environmental quality programs, based largely on their department’s activities and available data.  The overall purpose of the project is to “develop a local Environmental Health System that would be used for surveillance, investigation, tracking and evaluation.”[16]  Along with developing indicators, the project’s goals and objectives include creating the infrastructure to make data available for the indicators, and creating a single access system for professionals and the general public.  The 2002 project newsletter[17] listed the initial indicators, along with details such as the suggested data measure, source, and reporting frequency of each.  They were organized under the following topics: Community Environment Indicators, Food Safety, Injury Prevention, Lead Prevention, Drinking Water, Water Pollution, Solid Waste, and Plumbing.  The 2004 project newsletter includes an article that discusses local and national efforts to develop environment and health tracking systems, outlines information and suggestions on several aspects of developing such a system, and reviews several previous studies on environmental health tracking systems.[18]

Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Indicators Report

In 1999, the Sustainable Pittsburgh Goals and Indicators Project gathered the input of 250 community leaders to identify “the key elements of our region’s long-term prosperity and quality of life.”  The project had nine objectives, including 1) suggesting a long-range regional development agenda and 2) developing, implementing and tracking “new measures/indicators of regional prosperity that ensure balance between the three E’s.”  (This refers to Environment, Equity, and Economic development.)   Participants met in ten topic teams, including one entitled “Health and Environment.”  That topic team defined a number of strategies and indicators linked to 6 goals:

·         Enhancing environmental quality by reducing the negative effects of human made pollutants

·         Empowering citizens to choose healthy behaviors and adopt sustainable consumption habits

·         Improving the health status of the region’s population by eliminating health disparities

·         Enhancing environmental and occupation safety by assuring everyone is protected from unsafe conditions

·         Enhancing community environments by assuring that everyone has access to safe, decent, affordable housing in safe neighborhoods

·         Encouraging sustainable land use practices 


Sustainable Pittsburgh, with the assistance of AtKisson, Inc., recently released their 2004 Regional Sustainability Indicators Report in both pdf and interactive web format.[19]  It includes regional summary indicators, trends, and explanations of each below each of four areas, using the North-East-South-West directions of a compass as an analogy: Nature, Economy, Society, and Wellbeing.[20]  A number of the indicators are related to environmental health.  It added some indicators to the 2002 first edition, but is still based upon the same goals and framework that the 1999 focus groups defined.  In addition, it includes a “compass index” that ranks the topic areas according to how well the region is doing in that area.

Keep in mind that while these broader summary indicators and the underlying data are very useful for measuring regional-level progress, they are generally not specific enough—either geographically or by topic—for more detailed public health uses.  However, as is the case with ACHD’s Building Environmental Capacity Project, already-defined goals, strategies and indicators may help us to prioritize which regional environmental health data gaps we should address first.

Southwestern Pennsylvania Indicators Consortium

John G. Craig, Jr., former editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is leading a team that has begun work on a project to coordinate indicators development for Pittsburgh, with health and environmental issues among the four initial focus areas. [21]  Organizations involved thus far include Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and RAND Corporation.  They are not looking to establish a single “holding point” for indicators data, or to replace any existing endeavors, but are looking to establish broad-based committees for each focus area.  Having explored past efforts to develop indicators in the region, they have made several conclusions including the following:

·         The Pittsburgh Region clearly needs a regional indicator system.

·         Given current technology and federal-level efforts underway, this is an advantageous time to develop such a system.

·         Concentrating efforts on topic areas would allow for greater detail than comprehensive and aggregated “report cards” alone can provide.

·         Different topic areas (e.g., health, environment) have different geographic and political configurations, and thus require different approaches.

·         The focus should be upon actionable indicators, i.e., data that can inform us in acting to improve current conditions.

Technological Tools

Given the quantity and complexity of data in the realms of health and the environment, endeavors to improve data availability, accessibility, linkage, standardization and quality can be successful only through the use of creative technological tools.  Data can be improved only through additional sharing and use, and the tools described below that local organizations are developing may help to facilitate this process.  As each tool has its strengths and weaknesses, perhaps the different organizations can link resources to more efficiently serve various audiences, and provide an integrated data system with a wealth of functionality.

Community Information Commons

The Heinz Endowments, Carnegie Library and MAYA Design, a Pittsburgh based technology research lab, have partnered to create a research tool for exploring data on human health and the environment.  Utilizing “distributed database technology,” the Environmental Health Initiative created a Beta website which enables novice users to perform complex GIS analyses of health and environmental trends with easy to use data analysis and mapping tools.  By pointing and clicking on places on a map and selecting datasets of interest, a user can easily see, for example, the areas of Pennsylvania with the highest rates of breast cancer mortality and the highest level of toxic releases reported to the EPA, side by side with other community health indicators.  At the core of this system is the ability to fuse an unlimited amount of disparate data on health statistics, toxic release events and the health effects of exposure to toxins into a single data space, which MAYA calls the Information Commons.  As the network of contributors to the Information Commons grows, so does the ability of every citizen of Pennsylvania to become a research activist, creating compelling cases for environmental change through a clearer, data-driven understanding of the link between environmental toxins and human health.[22]


The Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS), with 3 Rivers Connect, MAYA Design, and the United Way of Allegheny County, are constructing a GIS (geographic information system) enabled internet data access system with human services information.  The publicly accessible initial product will feature locations of human services providers, details about the services they provide, and public transit route information.  As DHS oversees a broad range of services in areas including mental health, this project might eventually be pertinent to environmental health data compilation endeavors.  However, types of data included in future versions, as well as levels of access granted to different audiences, remains to be determined.[23], [24]       


Developed by Matthew Scotch and Bambang Parmanto within the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Health Information Management and Biomedical Informatics, SOVAT (Spatial OLAP[25] Visualization and Analytical Tool) allows one to conduct analyses that combine data from several sources and include various comparisons.  Current datasets in the system include Census 2000 demographics, birth and death data, Cancer Registry data, and hospital utilization including primary and secondary diagnosis.   “By combining On-Line Analytical Processing (OLAP) with Geospatial Information System (GIS) capabilities, [SOVAT] can handle large amounts of data, perform geospatial and statistical calculations, and then display this information in both a numerical and spatial view within the same interface.”[26]  Along with graph views, the system allows for geospatial analysis that goes beyond “simple visualization of spatial objects.”  For example, SOVAT allows one to look at the incidence rate of cancer specifically for African-American adolescents within Allegheny County, and then compare this to the incidence rate for several surrounding counties.  Additionally, SOVAT allows for cluster analysis, i.e., locating geographic regions that have similar values for a specified measure.  SOVAT’s usefulness for environmental health applications is currently limited primarily by the datasets available, but it has the potential to be utilized by researchers and policymakers at various geographic levels.  Many health datasets do not contain location identifiers smaller than the ZIP code level, and Census population data are compiled decennially.  In addition, due to current data sharing stipulations with state agencies, SOVAT cannot yet be made publicly accessible via the internet.

Info-Pitt and the Community Information System

The University of Pittsburgh’s University Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR) is compiling a range of information on Allegheny County neighborhoods and municipalities, to “serve as a channel for information sharing, community building and economic development within the Pittsburgh area.”[27]  This group wishes to make data easily accessible online or by request on the following topics: economic development, social conditions, demographics, physical/built environment, education, safety, politics, and health.  The usefulness of this project is that it would allow for linkages between datasets under various topics, including many relevant to environmental health. 

Info-Pitt is envisioned as the access point for the Community Information System (CIS, formerly known as the Vacant Property Project), a collaborative venture coordinated by 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development (PPND), and involving several other organizations.[28], [29]  We further discuss this endeavor, whose initial focus is to compile and map out data vacant properties in Pittsburgh, in the Built Environment section.  Because data on vacant and abandoned properties can represent a health threat as well as a potential health resource (e.g., by denoting potential sites for community gardens), this project may be of interest to the environmental health community. 

Environmental Health Tracking and Network Development

CDC Environmental Public Health Tracking in Pennsylvania

In 2002 the Centers for Disease Control’s EPHT program mentioned above funded a partnership between the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PADOH) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) to develop a “coordinated and integrated environmental public health tracking network that will include both environmental databases developed and maintained by PADEP as well as environmental health outcome databases developed and maintained by PADOH”.[30]   This included initiatives to do the following:

·        Collaborate and forge partnerships between traditional health-focused entities (for-profit and non-profit) and environmental monitoring agencies at the federal, state, and local levels

·         Expand capacity in the area of personnel expertise and latest technology infrastructure

·         Develop standardized electronic data elements

·         Build mechanisms for disseminating information to stakeholders.[31]


Because it is a capacity-building project as opposed to a demonstration project, this endeavor has not yet yielded any products (e.g., a web portal or query tool) that allow for data access; nor does it have any available data inventory products.  However, several members of its 24-person planning consortium, including several Pittsburgh area representatives, are also involved with the Health and the Environment working group of PCIEP, described above.  Thus, the efforts of the two groups will be synchronized.[32]

Somewhat related to this project, the PADOH Bureau of Epidemiology, Division of Environmental Health Assessment is moving forward on some school-based asthma-related work described under the health outcomes section.

Linkage and collaboration

Putting political and technical considerations aside for a moment, it is interesting to entertain the possibilities of linking these endeavors together.  For example, the Info-Pitt project is seeking to compile a broad range of data on different topics to provide a one-stop “clearinghouse” for community information, including that of the Community Information System (CIS).  MAYA’s Community Information Commons could help to link some of their larger government agency-compiled datasets to anecdotal information contributed by citizens, and to smaller datasets compiled by community groups or limited-timeframe studies.  This would then provide the general public with information from a variety of sources, easily accessible online.  Additionally, the data could be made available to researchers and policy makers through SOVAT, to provide a tool for more in-depth creative analysis and overlap of the various datasets.  The RODS lab, whose project is discussed under the Health Outcomes data section, might provide linkages of all of this to more real-time health data, along with data detection and analysis algorithms.

Pittsburgh might further examine such models as the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP),[33] an endeavor committed to making information available to a broader audience including the general public.  Some groups in Pittsburgh have already begun to explore such options.  Currently, in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control’s Environmental Public Health Tracking (EPHT) program,[34] a number of NNIP sites are beginning to consider the possibility of including environmental indicators in their systems.[35]