What is spatial epidemiology?

EPID 684
Spatial Epidemiology
University of Michigan School of Public Health

Jon Zelner
[email protected]


  • What is this a class about?

  • Introductions

  • Review structure of the course and key assignments

  • Discuss expectations/evaluation

  • Questions

Who am I?

  • Associate Professor of Epidemiology at UM

  • Core faculty member in the Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health (CSEPH)

  • Research group focused on social and spatial epidemiology of infectious disease (epibayes.io)

  • PhD in Sociology and Public Policy from UM (2011)

  • Also teach undergrad courses on the social history of infectious disease (PUBHLTH 405) and online spatial epid. courses (EPID 592/594)

My goals for this course

By the end of this term you will:

  1. Become effective in the application of spatial ideas to real-world problems in epidemiology.

  2. Be able to apply a spatial systems approach to public health.

  3. Learn how to select appropriate quantitative tools for addressing spatial public health problems.

  4. Understand how to use spatial analysis as a tool for advancing health justice and equity.

👨‍🚀: The final (epidemiological) frontier?

What makes spatial thinking and analysis different from non-spatial approaches?

Maps are an entrypoint to spatial analysis

John Snow’s famous 1854 map of Cholera deaths around the Broad Street Pump in London

Spatial epidemiology snuck up on me…

What makes an epidemiological problem meaningfully spatial?

Spend a few minutes answering the questions in this google doc:

  • What do you think the value of spatial analysis is for you in your academic or professional role (e.g. epidemiologist)?

  • What topics or methods are you most interested in learning about?

  • Any 🔥 burning questions 🔥 about the topic or class that I can answer?


My take: Relationships are at the heart of spatial analysis

  • Distance is a stand-in for all the things that often make near things more similar and far things less similar.

  • For example: environmental exposures, social and political factors, patterns of movement, built environment.

  • Shares a lot of ideas with longitudinal and network analysis.

  • Necessarily highly interdisciplinary and open to a wide range of approaches.

Spatial relationships are often physical reflections of social ones

Relationships between education, racial privilege and consistently low COVID-19 vaccination rates in Philadelphia neighborhoods. From (1)

Our key focus in this class is on how spatialized processes generate spatial patterns

Flow diagram of relationship between residential segregation and infection from (2)

That’s great, but what are we actually going to do this term?

Next Time


Rich JA, Miech EJ, Bilal U, et al. How education and racial segregation intersect in neighborhoods with persistently low COVID-19 vaccination rates in Philadelphia. BMC Public Health [electronic article]. 2022;22(1):1–10. (https://bmcpublichealth-biomedcentral-com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/articles/10.1186/s12889-022-13414-3). (Accessed January 2, 2023)
Zelner J, Masters NB, Naraharisetti R, et al. There are no equal opportunity infectors: Epidemiological modelers must rethink our approach to inequality in infection risk. PLOS Computational Biology [electronic article]. 2022;18(2):e1009795. (https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1009795). (Accessed February 16, 2022)