Open Access Open Badges Research

A power comparison of generalized additive models and the spatial scan statistic in a case-control setting

Robin L Young1*, Janice Weinberg1, Verónica Vieira2, Al Ozonoff1 and Thomas F Webster2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biostatistics, Boston University School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA

2 Department of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA

For all author emails, please log on.

International Journal of Health Geographics 2010, 9:37  doi:10.1186/1476-072X-9-37

Published: 19 July 2010



A common, important problem in spatial epidemiology is measuring and identifying variation in disease risk across a study region. In application of statistical methods, the problem has two parts. First, spatial variation in risk must be detected across the study region and, second, areas of increased or decreased risk must be correctly identified. The location of such areas may give clues to environmental sources of exposure and disease etiology. One statistical method applicable in spatial epidemiologic settings is a generalized additive model (GAM) which can be applied with a bivariate LOESS smoother to account for geographic location as a possible predictor of disease status. A natural hypothesis when applying this method is whether residential location of subjects is associated with the outcome, i.e. is the smoothing term necessary? Permutation tests are a reasonable hypothesis testing method and provide adequate power under a simple alternative hypothesis. These tests have yet to be compared to other spatial statistics.


This research uses simulated point data generated under three alternative hypotheses to evaluate the properties of the permutation methods and compare them to the popular spatial scan statistic in a case-control setting. Case 1 was a single circular cluster centered in a circular study region. The spatial scan statistic had the highest power though the GAM method estimates did not fall far behind. Case 2 was a single point source located at the center of a circular cluster and Case 3 was a line source at the center of the horizontal axis of a square study region. Each had linearly decreasing logodds with distance from the point. The GAM methods outperformed the scan statistic in Cases 2 and 3. Comparing sensitivity, measured as the proportion of the exposure source correctly identified as high or low risk, the GAM methods outperformed the scan statistic in all three Cases.


The GAM permutation testing methods provide a regression-based alternative to the spatial scan statistic. Across all hypotheses examined in this research, the GAM methods had competing or greater power estimates and sensitivities exceeding that of the spatial scan statistic.