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The environmental scan is a tool that can be utilized to collect data to design health programs uniquely tailored to the needs of communities. However, it remains relatively undefined, unevaluated and underutilized in the field of public health. While individual studies indicate the utility of the environmental scan for public health, it is difficult to find a theoretical framework or guidelines on how to design, implement or evaluate the process within public health practice. The purpose of this study was to elicit lessons learned to maximize the utility of the environmental scan as a tool for public health. This process occurred through the development and implementation of an environmental scan as part of the needs-assessment phase of a project to increase cancer screening among African Americans in Baltimore, MD. Data collection methods for the environmental scan included a review of community stakeholders, cancer incidence and community assets and liabilities in target communities, focus-group sessions and key informant interviews with service providers. The environmental scan was conducted in 2003 and allowed for rapid acquisition and use of information about events, trends and relationships in the neighborhoods targeted for our project and enabled researchers to move forward with implementing the cancer-screening project. The researchers conclude that the environmental scan has considerable potential to be a creative, responsive, cost-effective and mobilizing tool for public health practice. However, further application and critical review are necessary to make it a more effective public health tool and an established research methodology.