Worth a Thousand Words

Aerial view of lit up city at night with points in various spots

What can Google maps tell us about disparities in cancer prevalence and outcomes?

By: Catherine Mills

Could artificial intelligence shed light on the role of disparities in cancer prevalence and outcomes?

The answer is yes, according to Alexander Alekseyenko, Ph.D, a professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences and a member of the Biomedical Informatics Center at MUSC, and Nikunja Swain, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at South Carolina State University. SCSU is a historically black college in Orangeburg, SC.

Alekseyenko and Swain believe a picture is worth a thousand words. The pictures of greatest interest to them are public satellite images of homes and neighborhoods.

"We look at Google maps, Google satellite imagery and Google street view and try to extract information about individual addresses and neighborhoods,” explained Alekseyenko. "Any information we can extract using these tools would help us explain the disparities in cancer prevalence and cancer outcomes." Alekseyenko and Swain are building algorithms to extract information automatically for any given address from these sources. Alekseyenko hopes that descriptors for individual addresses will enhance our understanding of healthcare disparities.

"Researchers can get descriptors of what an individual address might look like," explained Alekseyenko. "They also learn about the accessibility of grocery stores, pharmacies and primary care physicians, all of which are important for patient outcomes." Alekseyenko believes that AI-derived features from map and satellite imagery data could better equip researchers to assess socioeconomic status than the zip code and census data typically used data about living conditions and neighborhood characteristics could also help predict how well patients will adhere to treatment.

They could also help clinicians to tailor interventions to improve patient adherence and to implement more effective treatment strategies.