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Open Access Highly Accessed Methodology

Spatial confidentiality and GIS: re-engineering mortality locations from published maps about Hurricane Katrina

Andrew J Curtis1*, Jacqueline W Mills2 and Michael Leitner1

Author Affiliations

1 World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Remote Sensing and GIS for Public Health, Department of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, USA

2 LSU GIS Clearinghouse Cooperative, Disaster Science Management Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, USA

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International Journal of Health Geographics 2006, 5:44  doi:10.1186/1476-072X-5-44

Published: 10 October 2006



Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can provide valuable insight into patterns of human activity. Online spatial display applications, such as Google Earth, can democratise this information by disseminating it to the general public. Although this is a generally positive advance for society, there is a legitimate concern involving the disclosure of confidential information through spatial display. Although guidelines exist for aggregated data, little has been written concerning the display of point level information. The concern is that a map containing points representing cases of cancer or an infectious disease, could be re-engineered back to identify an actual residence. This risk is investigated using point mortality locations from Hurricane Katrina re-engineered from a map published in the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper, and a field team validating these residences using search and rescue building markings.


We show that the residence of an individual, visualized as a generalized point covering approximately one and half city blocks on a map, can be re-engineered back to identify the actual house location, or at least a close neighbour, even if the map contains little spatial reference information. The degree of re-engineering success is also shown to depend on the urban characteristic of the neighborhood.


The results in this paper suggest a need to re-evaluate current guidelines for the display of point (address level) data. Examples of other point maps displaying health data extracted from the academic literature are presented where a similar re-engineering approach might cause concern with respect to violating confidentiality. More research is also needed into the role urban structure plays in the accuracy of re-engineering. We suggest that health and spatial scientists should be proactive and suggest a series of point level spatial confidentiality guidelines before governmental decisions are made which may be reactionary toward the threat of revealing confidential information, thereby imposing draconian limits on research using a GIS.