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Mapping a pandemic

We’re living through a unique and trying time. The novel coronavirus COVID-19 has swept across the globe, and each nation is approaching the complexities it presents differently.

To support those decisions, leaders can turn to geospatial scientists. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can be used to track any number of things, so long as they have a relationship with location data. Whether covering the frivolous or the fundamental, this makes the humble GIS a powerful tool that tells us more about our world. If we’re smart, we can then use that information to change the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the world map like never before, and while it presents a myriad of challenges, the work of geospatial scientists has been key to tracking and managing it.

The history of pandemic mapping

Before we look to today, it’s helpful to look back into the past for some context.

Using Geographic Information Systems to approach health and pandemic information is not a new idea. In fact, the mapping system that is often credited with being the very first GIS was created to try to uncover the cause of an illness that was affecting the population.

In 1832 in Paris, a cholera outbreak was afflicting the populace. Authorities were at a loss as to how best to approach the health emergency efficiently. The work of French geographer Charles Picquet, who took the reports and locations of outbreaks and mapped them location, produced a cholera heatmap that proved instrumental in containing and addressing the outbreak. This was just the beginning, of course: you can read up on those who followed Picquet’s work on this very website, here.

The parallels between Paris 1832 and 2020’s COVID-19 tracking maps are clear. Today’s efforts though are considerably more sophisticated…

Complex information, shown simply

An effective GIS map will be easy to intepret, no matter who the user is. Mapping COVID-19 geo data is of interest not just to government officials – companies, individuals and communities will find a GIS map useful.

This often means that a GIS map will have a singular specific purpose; this prevents the data from being confused, and makes it easier to access for more people. For the COVID-19 pandemic, one focus has been on mapping the incident of symptoms; by zeroing in on this aspect of the problem, we can examine the speed and distance of the spread, and better track the uptick or downtick in the number of those ill. It also helps authorities predict where their provention and mitgation efforts will be more helpful – if they can observe that incident of symptoms are increasing in one area, they can reasonably assume that the areas surrounding that community will be worth investing resources in.

There are now many mapping resources that are publicly available. The Esri Australia COVID-19 Map is one example that has particular interest for Australian audiences, as it tracks the status of Australia’s COVID-19 cases. To ensure its accuracy and relevance, it is updated hourly and draws on up-to-date information from The Guardian.

The John Hopkin University Map takes a global perspective, registering the cases, deaths and recoveries to date. It does this in near-real time. Carnegie Mellon University, meanwhile, has teamed up with Facebook to produce the COVID-19 Symptom Map. Utilising the sort of survey data Facebook is uniquely positioned to collect, it highlights the estimated percentage of people in the US presenting COVID-19 symptoms.

First responders

Dealing with the COVID-19 pandamic requires organised response efforts. But how best should governments respond? Organisations with access to data and tools that can help have often stepped up to support.

For example, to support the efforts of geospatial experts, Google – who with Google Maps has one of the great data mining resources at its disposal – has provided greater access to tools for non-profits working to provide resources to officials and the public. An example of this is a public dataset program, which is making free the information researchers need to add to the public discourse around this threat.

With this data, it is possible for users to predict peak conditions for COVID-19 outbreaks. This has huge implication for how resources and supplies are utilised and directed, and on the decisions our leaders make.

New world order

The world is facing a terrifying challenge, but it is possible for us to rise to meet it. With the power of GIS and geospatial science, we at least better placed to analyse it – and act accordingly.

To find out more about the power of geo data, read up on the technology that experts rely on.

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