Milken Institute School of Public Health
Gillings School of Global Public Health
Patrick Wall, a computer scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program, joins us today to discuss his work.
For background on the Tracking Program, we’ve included the first two questions and answers from Dr. Ekta Choudhary’s interview.
Could you tell us about the National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program (Tracking Program) is a nationwide effort to collect, interpret, and report data. The Tracking Program brings together data for environmental hazards and exposures, related health effects, and population demographics and behaviors. By covering these three types of data, this program uniquely fills the information gap between public health and environmental health issues.
The Tracking Program hosts the National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network (Tracking Network). The Tracking Network is a surveillance system with information and data from a variety of national, state, and city sources. You can find information on health effects such as asthma, cancer, and reproductive health issues as well as environmental exposures such as climate change, outdoor air, and community water. For information about these topics and more, visit the Tracking Network.
How could the Tracking Network be a useful resource to MPH students?
The Tracking Network collects, interprets, and reports different types of data which can be used to learn how the environment affects people’s health. It provides information about
- Environmental hazards and exposure which are data about chemicals or other substances such as carbon monoxide and air pollution in the environment.
- Health effects which are data about health conditions and diseases, such as asthma and birth defects.
- Population descriptors which are data that help us learn about relationships between exposures and health effects. For example, information about age, sex, race, and behavior or lifestyle choices that may help us understand why a person has a particular health problem.
MPH students can use these data to learn about the environmental health of their community and for school projects. If you are studying health behavior, for instance, you might find our population characteristics page relevant to your coursework. If you study epidemiology, you might prefer to look at our data on cancer, asthma, community water, or air quality.
What do you do with the Tracking Program?
I am a computer scientist, and I help to build the infrastructure and the systems that contain all the data on the Tracking Network. We build systems that not only store this information, but turn that data into knowledge. The end goal is that someone else: a public health practitioner, scientist, or community members will use that for some sort of research or action.
How does the flow of data work at the Tracking Program?
In general, we get data from three major sources: national partners like EPA, state health offices, and programs here at CDC. Because our data comes from so many sources, our science team has to make sure it is all scientifically valid and standardized. Once it’s ready for the tracking website, we work with the CDC scientists to make sure that we have functionality on the website for that particular content area. Each type of data has a different need for how it’s mapped, graphed, or otherwise displayed. We have to take all these variations into account when building our web visualization tool. It’s a challenge because we have a public website that’s used by a wide range of people. We need to walk the line between something that’s scientifically rigorous but still easily consumable by the public.
What makes the Tracking Network unique?
The Tracking Network has unique data searching and display. You can search over 350 different environmental health measures on our website. While other networks have environmental data, ours is the only one that combines that with a rich collection of health data. On top of that, the visualization options available for the data are cutting edge. The biggest one is the mapping interface. Lots of other sites have data maps, but they’re mostly static with some panning or zooming available. We recently added animated, interactive maps on our network. This will let you see how a trend is affecting a certain geographic area, so you can see them change over time. An exciting feature about this animation is that it maintains full mapping functionality. While it’s animating, you can still pan and zoom in order to focus on different places on the map. That’s something that we haven’t seen before in a health information system.
What advice would you give to someone just entering a graduate program or the workforce?
I would tell a budding environmental health informatics student to take a look at some of the fellowships available at CDC. For many years, we at the Tracking Program have supported the Public Health Informatics Fellowship. It’s a really terrific 2 year training fellowship that provides a solid training foundation in both public health and informatics. Folks who come in may have a little bit of each and will improve both. One of the hardest things to find in our area is that crossover person who can form a bridge between science and informatics. Those people are very valuable.
What is your education/work background? How did it prepare you for your job with the Tracking Program?
I got my bachelor’s in computer science from the University of Georgia. After I graduated, I took a job with a NASA-funded programming group. Our job was to take the programs written for space research and translate them for use on other computer platforms and for other industries. It was NASA’s way of maximizing the usefulness of its software and reinvesting in the community. Another part of my job was to follow up with folks who had used the software and write success stories based on their testimonials.
From there, I came to CDC as a contractor writing scientific programs, then became a federal employee. I started working in environmental health at the Radiation Studies Branch. I moved from there to working for a group that built pharmaceutical stockpiles in case of a bioterrorism incident in the US. Then I came to the Tracking Program in 2002, just a few months after it was established.
You’ve been with the Tracking Program since the beginning. What was it like starting out?
Our biggest challenge from the beginning was trying to develop something with so many questions unanswered. My team and I were charged with designing what the network would look like from an architectural point of view behind the scenes. We found it very hard to think about what the network was going to look like without knowing what data was going to be on it. We needed to strike a balance between being flexible enough to grow and being structured enough to get the job done. That required a certain level of abstract thought that computer professionals aren’t used to! After lots of hard work, we were able to come up with an architecture that is still going strong over ten years later.
Another challenging part of the job was gathering the data necessary for building the tool. All of our data comes from outside sources, so it was challenging to start from nothing. There’s a lot of trust and relationship building that had to go on for people to share their data with us.
Is there any part of your job that one might not expect?
You don’t normally think of computer science as being a profession that requires people skills, but I value that skill very highly. There is no one here who sits around and writes computer programs all day. It’s a team-oriented, collaborative environment. If you’re a computer science student, I’d recommend a public speaking course or something similar. It’s important to hone communication skills when it comes to preparing for your career.