Researchers join together to HEAL woes plaguing community

Paul Mayne // Western News

“An easy argument for doing nothing is saying that there is no local evidence, no London data,” Geography professor Jason Gilliland, creator and director of the Human Environment Analysis Laboratory.

While Magellan or Columbus might come to mind when thinking about maps, a group of London geographers is using mapping techniques to make real improvements in our urban society.

The Human Environment Analysis Laboratory, or HEAL, is a team of more than 20 students and faculty operating out of Western. Most of the HEAL’s research is based in geographic information systems (GIS), the process by which information is recorded analyzed and mapped. Some of their main focuses are improving access to nutritional foods throughout the city, bolstering the local economy and identifying trends in childhood physical activity.

Through their research, the team can identify any ‘hot spots’ in the city based on what it is they are looking for – poverty, obesity, health challenges, etc. According to HEAL team members, this mapping provides quantifiable statistics that can be used toward social change by influencing decision makers or citizens themselves.

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HEAL, which operates out of the Social Science Centre, has evolved over many years from the work of one man, creator and director Jason Gilliland. An expert in urban geography, he has used his position as a Geography professor at Western to gather a group of like-minded individuals who share a passion for helping people and effecting change in their community, something, he said, has its own set of unique challenges.

“At the end of the day, my job is to lose all my good employees,” Gilliland said.

As students graduate, they tend to move away from London to find work.

A main goal of his is not only to educate his students on issues like childhood obesity or systemic health problems in the greater London community, but also to get them involved so they build a personal relationship with that community. This way, more students might choose to stay in London to work instead of getting their education here before moving away to greener pastures.

One such student is research associate Michael Clark, who did his undergraduate thesis on the Old East Village farmer’s market and its economic impact on the community, with a focus on business improvement. His research found the market had the potential to be an important economic driver for the area and proposed ways to increase that potential through further development.

This relationship with the city and its people is an important part of what the HEAL team does and helps to extend students feelings of community beyond Western’s campus, Clark said.

“We get degrees here, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we know how the world works,” Clark said.

While continuing his education at Western, Clark has stayed close to the community and now holds a research position at the Old East Village business improvement area.

While HEAL is made up mostly of student researchers, it also has two postdoctoral fellows on staff who function as project managers, writing reports and focusing the teams research. Richard Sadler, for example, has been working with the HEAL since obtaining his PhD from Western in 2013.

Sadler is currently in charge of the ‘SmartAPPetite’ program, which aims to use social media to connect local producers, farmers, merchants and citizens to promote healthy eating and grow the local economy. This kind of social media presence could greatly influence the way Londoners spend their money and spur the local economy forward.

Along with their successes, HEAL team has faced obstacles involving city politics, Gilliland said. Those against the team’s proposed ideas have argued that their findings are not applicable to London and that changes aren’t necessary.

“An easy argument for doing nothing is saying that there is no local evidence, no London data,” Gilliland said.

While not without challenges, the HEAL team has seen its work result in positive changes to London. The local market economy of the Old East Village is up since Clark began his work there. Research into junk food and schools has, in part, influenced a number of projects in London, such as the ‘ACT-i-Pass’ project, which affords students in the fifth grade access to free physical activity throughout the city.

Since 2000, members of the HEAL team have been published more than 60 times in journals, books and official research reports, in multiple languages, covering issues ranging from active living and healthy eating to seasonal weather impacts on exercise.

Perhaps the strongest evidence though, according to Gilliland, is that each year new students join the ranks of the HEAL to work towards their own education and to try to make a difference in their community.