Privacy protection versus cluster detection in spatial epidemiology

Karen L. Olson, Shaun J. Grannis, Kenneth D. Mandl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


Objectives. Patient data that includes precise locations can reveal patients' identities, whereas data aggregated into administrative regions may preserve privacy and confidentiality. We investigated the effect of varying degrees of address precision (exact latitude and longitude vs the center points of zip code or census tracts) on detection of spatial clusters of cases. Methods. We simulated disease outbreaks by adding supplementary spatially clustered emergency department visits to authentic hospital emergency department syndromic surveillance data. We identified clusters with a spatial scan statistic and evaluated detection rate and accuracy. Results. More clusters were identified, and clusters were more accurately detected, when exact locations were used. That is, these clusters contained at least half of the simulated points and involved few additional emergency department visits. These results were especially apparent when the synthetic clustered points crossed administrative boundaries and fell into multiple zip code or census tracts. Conclusions. The spatial cluster detection algorithm performed better when addresses were analyzed as exact locations than when they were analyzed as center points of zip code or census tracts, particularly when the clustered points crossed administrative boundaries. Use of precise addresses offers improved performance, but this practice must be weighed against privacy concerns in the establishment of public health data exchange policies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2002-2008
Number of pages7
JournalAmerican journal of public health
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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