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The 2023 University of Toronto Geospatial Data Visualization Challenge

In Fall 2022, Esri Canada and the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH) initiated a three-year strategic collaboration to foster and spotlight the application of location intelligence and GIS in Canadian public health research. I co-lead the collaboration, along with Dr. Laura Rosella, associate professor and director of the DLSPH Population Health Analytics Lab.

To celebrate this unique and exciting program, we hosted the very first University of Toronto Geospatial Data Visualization Challenge from February 2 -10, 2023.

We asked DLSPH students to assemble a student team from across the University to develop an ArcGIS story map based on a public health issue of their choice for cash prizes. Esri Canada partner Environics Analytics donated their high-resolution data for the challenge. To up the ante, we gave the winning team a spot to present their solution at the 2023 Esri Canada GIS in Education & Research Conference held in early March at the University of Toronto’s Hart House.

After only one week – and with limited GIS backgrounds – five teams submitted astounding story maps.

The teams used geospatial methods and visualizations to evaluate a range of public health issues in Ontario—from child poverty and food access, to the opioid crisis, to physical activity and well-being. I was amazed by how innovative the teams were in integrating Environics Analytics data into their analyses to highlight new geographic insights about these current issues. Suffice to say, the judges themselves were challenged with choosing the top three teams, given how impressed they were with the final results.

The judges included Jo-Ann Osei-Twum, MSc, PhD candidate and DLSPH Data Science Fellow, and Jeff Allen, PhD, data visualization lead of the University of Toronto’s School of Cities. They evaluated each story map based on creativity, geospatial methods and scientific communication. Despite the stiff competition and impressive deliverables, the judges announced these winning teams:

1st place: The Covariates

Jonathan Sinn, Rachel Ma, Nicholas Chu, Anne Campbell, and Gabriel Tjong

Mission Statement: To demonstrate the severity of child food insecurity in specific areas across Toronto and to put forth recommendations on how to address this public health crisis.

Title page: Hungry for Solutions: Addressing Child Food Insecurity

Judges felt The Covariates produced an especially insightful and beautiful story map based on their innovative overall approach to evaluate child poverty in Toronto, the broad integration of open data (e.g., material deprivation, modified retail food environment index, etc.), advanced spatially explicit epidemiological modeling, and streamlined communication of results and recommendations to appropriate stakeholders.

The judges agreed that each of the teams’ submissions were unique, provided new insights in public health challenges, and were impressive despite the one-week deadline.

The students were able to quickly learn ArcGIS. As exclaimed by winning team member Jonathan Sinn, “The Geospatial Data Visualization Challenge was a great hands-on experience to use ArcGIS. We leveraged a wide range of tools, including hot spot analysis and geographically weighted regression, that were key to formulating public health recommendations on how to address the growing crisis of food insecurity.”

2nd place: Active Toronto

Sabrina Chiodo, Peter Haoxuan Ge, Devin Yongzhao Wu, and Hanlin Zhou

Mission Statement: Investigating the influence of the built and natural environment on physical activity.

Title page: Active Toronto

3rd place: Epic Epis

Sarra Abdalla, Brian Wooseok Kim, Katherine Lu, Konrad Samsel, and Paijani Sheth

Mission Statement: A geospatial analysis of the opioid epidemic in Toronto, associated risk factors and areas to target for action.

Title page: Toronto’s Opioid Epidemic

People’s Choice Award: Food for Thought

Rachael Jaffe, Chaoran Dong, Aranie Vijayratnam, Shaaf Farooq, and Senthujan Senka

Mission Statement: Understanding the density of healthy food accessibility and its impact on obesity related health outcomes in the Greater Toronto Area

Title page: Food for Thought

Explore all the story map entries.

Congratulations to all of the winning teams and students who participated in the challenge! And keep your eyes peeled for many upcoming research initiatives between Esri Canada and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

To learn more about Esri Canada’s Public Health Program, check out

About the Author

Alexander (Sandy) Watts is the Public Health Industry Manager for Esri Canada. He supports the digital future of Canada’s public health community by illuminating the power of GIS for health challenges unique to Canadian populations. As a spatial epidemiologist, he has led various geospatial research projects for epidemic preparedness and responses, creating GIS-driven solutions that supported policy decisions and resource allocation strategies at the Public Health Agency of Canada, the US-CDC Division of Global Migration & Quarantine and the World Health Organization. Sandy is passionate about the potential for location intelligence and GeoAI innovations to solve longstanding and future public health challenges, especially to reduce health inequities.

Profile Photo of Alexander Watts