Interactive atlases can help coverage of Diabetes Awareness Month

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

Sometimes it’s difficult to get a handle on major health determinants in your community, and it’s even harder to make them come alive in a story. Straightforward statistics can be dry or intimidating, while percentages and frequencies might fail to resonate.

So how can you give your readers, viewers or listeners a little extra background information without boring them to sleep? Interactive atlases are an effective way to do this – they can provide stories with both images and some enriched perspective. November is National Diabetes Awareness Month, and mapping tools like the CDC Diabetes Atlas provide a visual representation of diabetes in the U.S. The Diabetes Atlas helps to illustrate both diabetes and its many determinants using four indicators:

  • Diagnosed diabetes
  • Diagnosed diabetes incidence
  • Obesity
  • Leisure-time physical inactivity

The atlas default is a national county-level map. Get the menu by clicking “Indicator:”

diabetes menu

Choose an indicator and a subcategory, such as obesity > percentage of men > 2011:

obesity men

The settings can also be changed to reflect rankings, which reflect whether a county is above or below the national median in the selected indicator. (Click “Low- and High-Rank Maps” above the map.) This map shows physical inactivity by county (2011), as compared to the nation as a whole:

physical inactivity

Selecting a state zooms in on that state. Clicking on a county highlights that county on the map and the data in the list below. See “Diagnosed Diabetes Incidence, 2011” for Marion County, Fla. (see notes on incidence vs. prevalence below):

marion county fl

The USDA’s Food Environment Atlas  also gives some perspective on diabetes determinants.

By county or state, this atlas displays:

  • access and proximity to a grocery store, store availability
  • restaurant availability, food assistance (SNAP benefits)
  • state food insecurity, food prices and taxes
  • local foods
  • health and physical activity
  • socioeconomic characteristics.

Click the Atlas link to see a map of the United States. The default indicator setting is “Access and Proximity to a Grocery Store.” Change the indicator by clicking “Display a Different Map,” and choose different categories and subcategories. Some indicator color schemes display by state, in which each state is one solid color. But others display by county. Pick the indicator and subcategory you want, and then use the zoom on the  left-hand side to find your county. This map shows farmers’ markets for Tarrant County, Texas (Display a Different Map > Local Foods > Farmers’ Markets, 2013):

tarrant co tx

Another cool tool is the USDA’s Food Access Atlas, which charts “food deserts,” or supermarket access by census tract for both low-income (LI) and low-access (LA) individuals. To be considered a “food desert,” the tract in question must be a “low-income area in which a significant number of residents is far from a supermarket.”

“Far” differs depending on whether the tract is urban or rural. Click the link to begin with a U.S. map, and type the name of your community in the search box on the left-hand side. The map will show all the included census tracts, and a key on the right-hand side shows layering options. This map is checked to show “LI and LA at 1 and 20 miles” in Oakland, Calif.:

food access oakland

The tracts in orange have a significant number of the residents who live more than 1 mile from a grocery store. (If the tracts were in a rural area, it would be 20 miles – the second numbers in the key are relevant if the tract in question is rural.) For more information on access metrics and using the Atlas, visit About the Atlas.

(“Diagnosed diabetes” refers to a snapshot of the population’s diabetes stats at one particular time – a prevalence. “Diabetes incidence” refers to a rate, or diabetes diagnoses over the given time period. If you need a refresher on incidence and prevalence, watch this video.)

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