New tool monitors cancer rates

The National Cancer Institute has teamed up with a Pennsylvania State University research center to develop a visualization tool that could form the basis for a range of new spatial data analysis solutions.

These solutions are considered vital for homeland defense and crisis management, in which first responders and decision-makers might have limited knowledge of analysis techniques but still need to make sense of complex data.

Visualization is seen as a key method for making the analysis of such data accessible to nonexperts.

The NCI/PSU application ( will be an exploratory spatial data analysis (ESDA) tool configured for monitoring the rates that cancers appear in various populations around the country. It will include the ability to explore potential causes of those cancers.

NCI collaborated with researchers at Penn State's Geographic Visualization Science, Technology and Applications (GeoVISTA) Center and the U.S. Census Bureau to develop the general software on which the cancer surveillance tool is based.

The researchers will use GeoVISTA Studio, an environment that Penn State researchers developed for building applications using Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java, to integrate the JavaBeans components that will add the statistical and visualization functionality to the basic ESDA tool.

The cancer surveillance tool will link time-variable cancer rates with places on a map showing where cancers developed, explained Alan MacEachren, director of the GeoVISTA Center. Researchers can use the tool to zoom in on low and high cancer rates and see how those are linked spatially, he said. Other variables, such as per-capita income, can be introduced to show how they alter the occurrence and spread of cancers over time.

"We were interested in monitoring the trends and changes in cancer rates, and MacEachren's tools allow us to explore where in a particular county the change might be different from that of another county, and what happens when certain variables change," said Linda Pickle, a senior mathematical statistician for NCI.

In the past, NCI researchers have been able to show certain factors such as overall cancer rates, survival rates and the relation of late-stage cancers to those factors, she said. But they used fairly simple graphs and statistical charts.

The new surveillance tool provides a "quantum leap beyond the kinds of analytical graphics we had available to us in the past," Pickle said. "It also allows us to put the results of our analysis onto the Web in a much more detailed way for the general public to see."

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.


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