Nowadays many of us use a lot of different software. The software you choose depends on the software you have available, the skills you have in using this software and the task you would like to perform.
Many health professionals store their primary data in a database or Excel spreadsheet. These are great tools for storing large datasets in a structured way but have less functionality for creating maps, or performing spatial analysis. Health professionals also use statistical software to analyze the data. Examples of this category of software are SPSS , SAS and R.
Different types of GIS software
When you have two records in your spreadsheet, each storing data on a particular patient, you may know the addresses of these patients, but the software cannot show these patients on a map or calculate the distance between the two addresses. This is where the GIS software comes in. This software is designed for creating maps, storing spatial data, and performing spatial analysis.
You have two type of GIS software packages:
- Specific health domain GIS packages/applications (Epi Info, Health Mapper)
- General GIS packages (ArcGIS, QGIS, ILWIS)
The advantage of specific health domain software is that they integrate functionality from different groups of software (data storage, statistical analysis, and mapping). The disadvantage is that their analytical functionality is mostly limited to basic functions/tools.
Additional software packages
General GIS software packages normally have a wide range of tools available, but the learning curve for this type of software is steeper. Although your GIS can read Excel Spreadsheet data, or may even contain a database, when you know how to bring your data from one type of software to another, this may be advantageous as you can use the full functionality.
When the analysis you would like to perform or the models you want to make become more complex, specific additional software is often needed. This can be software like SatScan (cluster detection), or Netlogo (agent-based models) but can also be found in packages of R (Machine Learning).
Open Source or Commercial software?
Over the past years, we have seen different trends in software that are very encouraging. More open source software is becoming available. Open source software is free of charge and the source code is made available to be used freely. Besides open source software you also have vendor software. This type of software is being sold by a commercial company, so you will have to pay to obtain a license. When you buy commercial software, the company normally provides support, and they will provide regular updates and training.
Integration of Software
GIS has become a part of the information infrastructure of many organizations within, but also outside the health domain. The different software packages can be linked by sharing data and are becoming more and more open and able to read each other’s data formats. We often refer to this as interoperability.
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