How GIS is Being Used to Fight COVID-19

The Chinese city of Wuhan witnessed the emergence of the Coronavirus infection, COVID-19, in late 2019. In February 2020, the infection was termed as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). Since then, the infection has rapidly spread across the globe, killing thousands of people and crippling economies. Governments and healthcare planners are heavily dependant on technology to combat the virus. As we proceed ahead, let us first understand the importance of location in fighting a pandemic.

covid-19 virus illustration

Why location is important to fight a pandemic like COVID-19

Whenever there is a large outbreak, location information is a very important tool that assists emergency healthcare planners in their decision-making. During an outbreak, the ‘when’ and ‘who’ of the infection are relative and depend on the ‘where.’ Geographic information system or GIS tools are often used by epidemiologists to determine the ‘where’ of the outbreak.

The emergency healthcare planners, in the past, have often used maps to analyze the spread of infections. Whether it was the bubonic plague in 1694 or the cholera outbreak in London in 1854, maps have always assisted in mitigation measures.

From Zika to Ebola, in the 20th century, healthcare professionals have always used maps as an important tool to fight the deadly outbreaks. GIS, too, has gained prominence in recent years as it helps healthcare planners identify current cases, the likely spread in nearby areas, population at risk, etc. While these are certain basic use cases of GIS, there are broader application areas that are listed ahead in this article.

COVID-19 and current challenges

The COVID-19 has posed significant challenges to healthcare planners around the world due to its sheer magnitude. Lack of vaccines are only worsening things and failing to provide an adequate response to the virus. However, despite the existing challenges, numerous response efforts are underway in the public and private sectors.

One of the critical components of fighting the pandemic is the need to maintain situational awareness, which is challenging. The traditional means of surveillance methods, response activities, and case management are inadequate to meet the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Emergency response planners need data to devise containment measures, prioritize and manage interventions, increase medical response capacities, decide on staff deployment for critical operations and communicate with the general public. 

How GIS technologies are helping to combat COVID-19

We are still months away from the vaccine that can cure people who contract the virus. However, the spread of the virus can be controlled through social distancing measures. GIS technologies are already helping emergency response planners in the ways listed below.

1. Identify outbreak source: Advanced computerized spatial analyses that integrate phylo-epidemiological methods have been used to identify the likely sources of Coronavirus in China. A similar model was used by John Snow when he managed to identify the source of the cholera outbreak in London in 1854

GIS helps in identifying COVID-19 sources depicted here by a thermometer

2. Map current cases: The dashboards of Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organization (WHO) are helping emergency response planners to identify quarantine measures, impose travel restrictions, and close critical infrastructure like institutions and transportation for public use. 

3. Identify sensitive locations and populations: Certain places can be very challenging to impose social distancing measures. Similarly, certain people will be more prone to contract the infection. The CDC Social Vulnerability Index in the US has helped authorities identify census-based information to identify vulnerable individuals and higher-risk areas like encampments, prisons, etc. 

4. Examine virus spread: As the Coronavirus is spreading rapidly across geographies, identifying carriers and implementing containment measures is being carried out at a great pace. Authorities are doing it spatially and combining it with transportation information and places where people meet. Through these insights, it is becoming possible to identify the spread of the virus. 

5. Identify resource locations: Maps and dashboards help residents of affected areas identify aid and resources made available by the authorities. For hospitals, it is the number of available beds, medical aid, etc. It is also beneficial in identifying pharmacies and grocery stores. The maps and dashboards act as a great source of information, especially in impacted areas.

Dashboard developed by John Hopkins University
John Hopkins University has developed a dashboard using ArcGIS Online that pulls relevant data from WHO, U.S. CDC, ECDC China CDC (CCDC), NHC, and Dingxiangyuan.

6. Analyze capacity: Two models that have gained a lot of prominences are Penn Medicine’s COVID-19 Hospital Impact Model for Epidemics and CDC’s Flu Surge. These models are proving beneficial for identifying hospital capacities in terms of bed availability. Similar models are also being used to identify the capacities of the workforce and testing centers. 

7. Supply chain: Digital supply chain maps act as great resources for planners to ensure suppliers are well spread in a geographical area. It is important to overcome incidents of shortages related to essential supplies and medicines. At times, there could also be a decline in production when manufacturing centers themselves get impacted.

8. Remote surveys: Industries like landscape, real estate, welfare, and governmental bodies require data collection. Usually, the data is collected by physical visits by individuals or teams. However, GIS technology like MapX helps to reduce the need for physical visits. With the help of satellite technology, data can be directly extracted from imagery. 

Automation of remote property measurements by MapX
Attentive AI has developed a property measurement data platform that automates remote property measurements.

9. Mass Communication through maps, trackers, and dashboards: The emergency response planners and authorities are using maps and dashboards, like the Attentive AI COVID-19 tracker for India, to analyze the impact of the pandemic. This tracker uses the data released by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of India to create comprehensible visualizations that help to grasp the situation of the pandemic in the country.  

The road may be long, but there is hope

The importance of location in fighting the pandemic is huge. Through precise maps and dashboards, emergency response planners and authorities are managing to generate relevant insights. Though these technologies cannot combat the virus completely on their own, they are helping in containing the spread of the virus. Till the time a fool-proof vaccine is discovered, technology will help save millions of lives around the world.

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