The Modifiable Areal Unit Problem

EPID 684
Spatial Epidemiology

Jon Zelner
[email protected]


  • Defining the MAUP 😱 and the challenges it presents.

  • Implications of looking at the same phenomena over different scales.

  • Return of smoothing (if we have time…)

What are some of the ways to define neighborhoods?

Administrative neighborhoods
Census tracts, block groups, official neighborhoods
Residential neighborhoods
Boundary definitions that reflect characteristic patterns of movement and exposure for people living in a given area
Egocentric neighborhoods
Defined relative to the individual’s location, may incorporate patterns of movement and exposure specific to them.

It came from the MAUP!

Scale Effects

Aggregating up from low- to high-level spatial units results in biased estimates of measles outbreak risk.(1)

Zonation Effects

Different neighborhood boundaries at the same scale result in different estimates of local N02 exposure. (2)

Environmental exposures like air pollution do not respect administrative boundaries

Variation in N02 exposure in Ottawa, Ontario (2)

What does any of this have to do with me?

Take 5-10m to identify using this miro board:

  • What are potential zonation effects for your project topic?

  • How about scale effects?

Why should we be concerned about the tyrrany of neighborhoods?

Not all exposures happen at a single scale (From (4))

A thought experiment about scales

  • Use individual-level data from Australian cities to examine correspondence between individual and neighborhood avg. wealth.

  • Build bespoke or egocentric neighborhoods around each location of increasing size.

  • Examine how the relationship between neighborhood average and individual incomes change with increasing size.

  • Not looking for the right scale, but instead for the implications of using each.

What happens to variation in income as the scale of neighborhoods increases?

Variation within and between egocentric neighborhoods declines with increasing size (5)

How does the relationship between individual and contextual income change over distance?

Share of low income people in neighborhood becomes a weaker predictor of individual income as scale increases (5)

Petrovic et al. advocate a multi-scale approach

  • Higher-order structures constrain possibilities within lower-level ones.

  • The timescale of change at higher (e.g. city or region) levels is slower than at more-local levels.

  • What advantages do you see in taking a multi-scale approach to your problem?

  • What are the practical and theoretical challenges to doing so?

Next Time

Examining segregation as a multi-scalar, multi-dimensional phenomenon


Masters NB, Eisenberg MC, Delamater PL, et al. Fine-scale spatial clustering of measles nonvaccination that increases outbreak potential is obscured by aggregated reporting data. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [electronic article]. 2020;( (Accessed October 26, 2020)
Parenteau M-P, Sawada MC. The modifiable areal unit problem (MAUP) in the relationship between exposure to NO2 and respiratory health. International Journal of Health Geographics [electronic article]. 2011;10(1):58. ( (Accessed April 4, 2022)
Landrigan PJ. Epidemic Measles in a Divided City. JAMA [electronic article]. 1972;221(6):567–570. ( (Accessed February 4, 2020)
Petrović A, Manley D, van Ham M. Freedom from the tyranny of neighbourhood: Rethinking sociospatial context effects. Progress in Human Geography [electronic article]. 2020;44(6):1103–1123. ( (Accessed February 14, 2021)
Petrović A, van Ham M, Manley D. Where Do Neighborhood Effects End? Moving to Multiscale Spatial Contextual Effects. Annals of the American Association of Geographers [electronic article]. 2022;112(2):581–601. ( (Accessed April 4, 2022)