New Modeling Methods: Geographic Information Systems and Spatial Analysis

Article excerpt

Geographic factors, such as the location of alcohol outlets or of neighborhoods with different socioeconomic status within an area, can influence the patterns of alcohol use and alcohol-related problems in that area. Geographic information systems (GIS)computer-based systems to capture, store, retrieve, analyze, and display spatial dataare increasingly used to investigate the effects of such geographic factors. GIS offer several key capabilities that facilitate alcohol-related geographic analyses, including geocoding (the linking of descriptive data, such as driving-while-intoxicated [DWI] events, to a location on a map), informative visual displays, and calculation of distance and adjacency. Using GIS-based data, researchers can perform complex spatial analyses of alcohol-related behaviors and problems, such as determining the correlation between DWI rates and geographic locations. These types of analyses may help investigators to understand environmental influences on alcohol-related problems and to plan and target appropriate prevention and intervention approaches. KEY WORDS: geographical area; regional differences; environmental factors; context dynamics; alcoholic beverage sales outlet; location and density of outlets; AOD availability; drinking and driving; violence; crime; data analysis method; information source; computer technology; epidemiology; AOD prevention; scientific model; literature review

The biopsychosocial model of alcoholism posits that biological, psychological, and social factors jointly contribute to the development of alcoholism and alcoholrelated problems. Although researchers have made significant progress in elucidating the biological and psychological elements of alcohol use and its associated problems, the analysis of the social component has substantially lagged behind. One approach to facilitating the complete integration of the social component into the biopsychosocial model is to examine geographic factors associated with alcohol use and alcohol-related problems.

Geographic analyses focus on the role of space (i.e., distance and area), place (i.e., space plus social and physical context), and location (i.e., the impact of being in specific spaces and places) in understanding social, behavioral, and natural phenomena, including alcoholism. Numerous findings of alcohol research have indicated that important geographic factors are associated with the use and abuse of alcohol. These geographic factors include spatial factors (e.g., the location of and distance between places where alcohol is sold [i.e., alcohol outlets]) as well as contextual and environmental factors that define specific places, such as local cultural characteristics and socioeconomic status. Furthermore, the results of analyses of these factors can be summarized in attractive visual displays, such as maps. Until recently, however, such geographic approaches to alcohol epidemiology were rarely implemented because of substantial technical difficulties, such as the labor required to place a large data set onto a map and insufficient computer software for performing these spatial analyses.

The development of geographic information systems (GIS) will allow researchers to greatly increase their understanding of geographic factors that influence alcohol use and its associated problems. The resulting new modeling methods, which are based on spatial conceptualizations, permit the improved integration of geographic and social factors into alcohol research and are comparable in significance to the advanced perspectives on biological processes that have been provided by new internal imaging technologies. Thus, spatial modeling approaches can generate new research questions as well as provide answers to these and existing questions.

The simplest definition characterizes GIS as "automated systems for the capture, storage, retrieval, analysis, and display of spatial data" (Clarke et al. 1996, p. 85). Martin (1996) has provided another definition of GIS, which is based on the terms making up the acronym. …