Bill Davenhall: Using GIS to Make Medicine Complete

bill davenhall

Bill Davenhall, Father of Geo-Medicine and TED Speaker

When was the last time that your doctor asked you for a list of all the places you’ve lived? Never? Typically, the reaction to such a question would be screaming “That’s none of your business!” and proceeding bash your doctor with a bedpan (OK, that was a bit dramatic). However, regardless of what your reaction would be, it is a question that is rarely asked, if at all. Why would such a question matter? Well, Bill Davenhall and his disruptively innovative use of GIS provides the answer. You see, the health problems you may currently be experiencing may have nothing to do with your habits or choices – it could be because of where you live.

Now, before you decided to just pick up and ship off to the pristine and untouched terrain of the Alaskan wilderness, let me try and clarify. Yes, the choices we make in our daily lives and our habits contribute largely to our health. We all know that smoking and drinking often will increase your chances for various lung and liver diseases, and that eating a lot of fast food and not exercising may lead to obesity. We are aware of this, and fortunately, it is within our locus of control (for the most part) to alter these habits/choices. However, people seldom take into consideration the environment that they live in when they think about the ailments and health issues that they suffer from.


Here’s one of the examples that Bill shared. In Southern California, there was an large amount of perchlorate that was left over after the production of rocket fuel. Thinking that the earth would be able to absorb and disperse the toxic chemical, those in charge sent the perchlorate into the ground, and let it be. Now, the perchlorate was absorbed; however, it was not dispersed. Because of its chemical structure, the perchlorate settled into the water table of that area, and began to infect the water that the people were drinking. Do you know what perchlorate does to the body? Perchlorate, when brought into the human body, begins to effect the thyroid, which is a very important gland that controls things like metabolism and iodine uptake. Now, this was a while back (1997, to be more precise), and steps have been taken to ensure that the drinking water is not highly toxic. Sadly, however, the perchlorate cannot be completely eradicated from the water table – it can only be diluted. Therefore, there is still perchlorate present in the drinking water, which leads to an increased risk of thyroid issues.

Now, that little history lesson on the silly choices of rocket scientists (or their garbage men) has a purpose. Imagine, if you will, a couple that lives in Southern California, specifically in an area that has perchlorate in the drinking water. This couple is trying to have a baby, but they find that they are having troubles conceiving, and if they do conceive, there is a miscarriage. This is a very sad and turbulent situation for anyone trying to have a baby, and being so rightly frustrated, this couple goes to see the doctor. When they arrive, they have tests done, spend loads of money on them, and find that the woman has thyroid issues, specifically focused around the uptake of iodine, which is a necessary element when trying to get pregnant and maintaining pregnancy. The doctor may even find that there are trace levels of perchlorate in the woman’s body. So how could all of this have been solved, or even prevented? Mr. Davenhall has the answer.

Through his work with ESRI, Bill and his associates have developed an app (My Place History) that lets you see the toxicity levels in a given area, as well as other factors like heart-attack rate and a walking score (those are what popped up in my report, anyway). Back to the couple trying to have a baby, if the doctor had asked them for a history of all the places they have lived, and utilized the information that Mr. Davenhall and his associates at ESRI have made available, the doctor would have seen that the area they live in is high in perchlorate, and that this is most likely what is causing the difficulties with pregnancy. He would have advised the couple to move from the area, or at least try to minimize exposure to water the comes from the communities water table. Additionally, if the couple had utilized this before they moved to that area, they would have seen what they were moving into, and could have made a different choice.

my place history

This geo-medicine, as it has come to be called, is growing in popularity, and we have Bill to thank for that. You see, there was a certain point where people were reluctant to use GIS for healthcare purposes. It was an experimental concept that would add work to the doctors load. After all, every time the doctor has a new patient, there are already so many questions that must be asked. Asking for a location history would just be a hassle. This is understandable, as the doctor is very busy person. Regardless, this made the growth of geo-medicine a somewhat turbulent process. In the early stages, it wasn’t even by the name geo-medicine. That term, which Bill calls “attractive” (and it totally is), grew from the process of finding support. The, well, sexiness of the word geo-medicine made it sell so much better.

Truthfully, the data revealed by things like My Place History and other geo-medicine apps isn’t anything that is new. You see, this data has been here all along. The automation, according to Bill, has been there as well. The only step that is missing is the protocol that allows the doctor to collect that information. This falls into a whole slew of problems that plague the administrative side of healthcare and insurance. Suffice it say that there needs to be some changes made so that the data is made a bit more available, guaranteeing a more complete visit to the doctor.

Bill Davenhall and ESRI have put together something that can bring about much change. With this information so easily obtainable, we will be able to look behind the mask of the pretty places we want to live in, and see if there is a more ugly truth behind it. This data can even give insight into socio-health issues, such as the food desert phenomena. There is so much we can learn and change, making a better future – and the key lies in places from our past.


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