Bayesian areal wombling via adjacency modeling

Haolan Lu, Cavan S Reilly, Sudipto Banerjee, Brad Carlin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


Recently, public health professionals and other geostatistical researchers have shown increasing interest in boundary analysis, the detection or testing of zones or boundaries that reveal sharp changes in the values of spatially oriented variables. For areal data (i.e., data which consist only of sums or averages over geopolitical regions), Lu and Carlin (Geogr Anal 37: 265-285, 2005) suggested a fully model-based framework for areal wombling using Bayesian hierarchical models with posterior summaries computed using Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) methods, and showed the approach to have advantages over existing non-stochastic alternatives. In this paper, we develop Bayesian areal boundary analysis methods that estimate the spatial neighborhood structure using the value of the process in each region and other variables that indicate how similar two regions are. Boundaries may then be determined by the posterior distribution of either this estimated neighborhood structure or the regional mean response differences themselves. Our methods do require several assumptions (including an appropriate prior distribution, a normal spatial random effect distribution, and a Bernoulli distribution for a set of spatial weights), but also deliver more in terms of full posterior inference for the boundary segments (e.g., direct probability statements regarding the probability that a particular border segment is part of the boundary). We illustrate three different remedies for the computing difficulties encountered in implementing our method. We use simulation to compare among existing purely algorithmic approaches, the Lu and Carlin (2005) method, and our new adjacency modeling methods. We also illustrate more practical modeling issues (e.g., covariate selection) in the context of a breast cancer late detection data set collected at the county level in the state of Minnesota.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)433-452
Number of pages20
JournalEnvironmental and Ecological Statistics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2007

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgments The work of all four authors was supported in part by NIH grant 1-R01-CA95955-01. The authors would like to thank Dr. James S. Hodges for suggesting one of the computational methods, as well as for extensive editorial advice that greatly improved the final manuscript.


  • Adjacency modeling
  • Areal data
  • Conditionally autoregressive (CAR) model
  • Hierarchical Bayesian model
  • Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) simulation
  • Spatial statistics


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