Capstone project improves disease mapping tool for Penn State Cancer Institute

Angela M. Rogers
February 26, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Recent Master of Geographic Information Systems graduate Nate Geyer has always been interested in epidemiology and geography. As a research support assistant in the Department of Public Health Sciences in the College of Medicine, he was able to put those interests together by creating a new version of the LionVu cancer mapping tool.

“What appealed to me was my sense of creating something new and using my skills to improve public health research,” Geyer said. He programmed the new version and implemented a questionnaire to assess its usability. Then for his capstone project, Geyer analyzed the data and published an article in October 2020 issue of the International Journal of Geo-Information.

Originally built in 2015 by the Penn State Cancer Institute, LionVu is a web-based cancer data visualization dashboard for public health professionals, with an emphasis on the PSCI 28-county catchment area in central Pennsylvania. It used data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Pennsylvania Department of Health and County Health Rankings, Geyer said.

But by 2020, it was time for an upgrade to both the user-interface and technical platform, said Eugene Lengerich, professor of public health sciences and associate director, health disparities and engagement, at the Penn State Cancer Institute.

So Lengerich approached Geyer about creating a new version of LionVu because he knew of his expertise in the analysis of spatial data.

Once Geyer began the project, “My role was to provide input on the types of data and questions that users might go to LionVu to answer,” Lengerich said.

Fritz Kessler, teaching professor in the Department of Geography and MGIS instructor, was Geyer’s adviser.

“Nate came to me with the idea,” Kessler said. “It usually works out very well when the student comes prepared with a topic for their capstone. The LionVu project involved taking an existing web-based mapping service and revising its interface, functionality, content and map design. These aspects of software revision are topics that are covered in various courses in the MGIS program, so it afforded him the opportunity to apply what he learned throughout his MGIS coursework in a practical setting — which is a great outcome.”

“Everything from the usability assessment has been implemented except for the training videos,” Geyer said. “In addition, a feedback form now exists that provides suggestion on how to improve the mapping tool.”

Now, LionVu 2.0 is stored locally on the Penn State Health server, so it is HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliant.

“It also uses customized code to allow for more flexibility in how to use the tool and to provide more ability to update in the future,” Geyer said.

“Many changes have occurred,” Lengerich said. “The user interface is vastly improved. The user has much more control over data visualization. We have incorporated download and print capabilities. Importantly, LionVu includes the ability to simultaneously visualize data for two different geographic areas. In addition, the user can visualize different data for the same geographic area. These features help users develop research hypotheses and target interventions.”

In Fall 2020, the prototype was developed into the current stage and as of January 2021 is now live at this link.

“LionVu 2.0 lets the user identify high-risk areas or populations in central Pennsylvania,” Lengerich said. “We use this information to target research, outreach and education. It also shows us where there may be a shortage of health care facilities.”

The new version is not limited to cancer-related queries, Geyer said. “Though LionVu was developed for the Penn State Cancer Institute, the tool is not disease-specific. It includes more than 500 data fields, so it is cross-sectional.”

With a postbaccalaureate certificate in GIS, master’s degree in clinical research and a doctoral degree in public health, Geyer had the health background and a solid geospatial foundation, but little web programming experience, so he enrolled in the Graduate Certificate in Geospatial Programming and Web Map Development, as part of his MGIS degree.

“In GEOG 863 Web Application Development for Geospatial Professionals, I learned how to web programming using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, which was done in ArcGIS Online,” Geyer said. “And in GEOG 585 Open Web Mapping, I learned how to use Leaflet JavaScript, which formed the web mapping part of the project.”

Overall, Geyer said he learned a lot from the project: “I learned to better accept critical feedback from peers and instructors and use the feedback to improve LionVu.”

Geyer will be giving a presentation on his project at an upcoming Public Health Sciences faculty meeting. He said he welcomes the opportunity to present LionVu to other groups at Penn State.

The PSCI plans a formal rollout of LionVu in March 2021, Lengerich said, and looks forward to learning how it is used by students, investigators and public health professionals.

Last Updated March 29, 2021