Opinion: Tackling COVID-19 — how location intelligence can speed public health response

During public health emergencies, populations depend on responders to assemble relevant data and perform analysis to accelerate and enhance decision-making. Photo by: CWSSIP / Dhammika Heenpella / CC BY-NC-ND

Lately, we are all better informed when it comes to natural, accidental, or international events that affect our health. While I recognize that more information flow can sometimes be sensationalized, causing public distress, I have personally found it to be reassuring since lives are saved when public health professionals have the right data and tools to make decisions and act quickly.

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So what has changed? Thousands of organizations are taking advantage of the location intelligence technology known as geographic information systems, or GIS, as an integral part of their preparedness and response activities. In recent years, we have seen GIS deployed to model the radiation plume during Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, to help the World Health Organization contain and defeat Ebola in West Africa’s 2014-2016 outbreak, to allocate resources for Syrian refugees in 2015, and to provide situational awareness to first responders during the 2019 California wildfires.

Now, a host of GIS resources are being shared to prepare for and respond to the COVID-19 outbreak around the world.

Here is how the global health community is using location intelligence:

1. Preparing data resources during blue skies

Accurate data is vital in public health emergencies. Ideally, we would anticipate data needs during “blue skies” — when there is time to plan and prepare.

Data supports analytics, decision-making, and early warning systems. But this data is complex and comes in many forms — spreadsheets, web services, big data, and unstructured data. It also comes from many sources, including health facilities, road networks, traffic sensors, and satellite and drone images. This information supports analysis of the built and natural environments, as well as health care data for infection rates and mortality figures.

It can be an overwhelming challenge to get these disparate data resources to work together in a single system. Often, a geographic location provides the only common feature, and a GIS platform can help integrate and maintain these foundational datasets.

Data should be collected and maintained in a geographic database, or — better still — organizations can connect their GIS setups to all of the organization data systems, ensuring that the information is always fresh and authoritative. In an emergency event, public health officials can add real-time data to their foundational data.

A great example from Papua New Guinea shows how preplanning with foundational data and connecting directly to the national health information system supports malaria program needs.

2. Enhancing local community knowledge

Adequate preparation is the key to quick emergency recovery. Besides the collection of foundational data resources, data analysis is also warranted. At the local level, this involves characterizing community vulnerabilities and risks.

A jurisdictional vulnerability review identifies critical infrastructure gaps as well as vulnerable populations such as children, seniors, and individuals with special needs. For example, the World Health Organization mapped the locations of laboratories in West Africa that could perform Ebola testing to help answer questions of capacity and need for additional facilities.

World population data from the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World — a free geo-enabled data repository — enhances analysis by adding local demographic knowledge. With this information, the right resources can be provided to help communities meet specific needs.

3. Monitoring the situation

Health departments need to identify threats, which requires the ability to recognize patterns in space and time. A GIS provides different analytic tools and methods to turn raw data into actionable information. For example, spatial analysis provided critical information that helped reduce the threat of the Zika virus by zeroing in on the habitat for the disease-carrying Aedes mosquitoes. Maps used for this assessment combined factors such as ambient temperature, precipitation, elevation, and land-use data. When those maps were layered with population data, health officials could easily see priority areas for intervention.

4. Evaluating and managing impacts

During a health emergency, information must be delivered to responders and the public in a clear and efficient way. In the current COVID-19 outbreak, the world has been relying on information from the dashboards of the World Health Organization and Johns Hopkins University. Both of these dashboards use similar data feeds, update multiple times per day, and show similar — though not exact — results based on slightly different approaches to data collection.

The dashboards were made publicly available early in the crisis using Operations Dashboard for ArcGIS, a configurable dashboarding tool. These and other dashboards are used in print and broadcast media to share information with the public and have supported rapid decision-making related to travel bans and alerts, quarantines, and resource allocation.

The World Health Organization’s authoritative dashboard was released on Jan. 26 and has received millions of views.
The Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard was released on Jan. 22 and has received hundreds of millions of views.

5. Supporting collaboration and response

In emergency management terms, responders are most effective when they work from a common operating picture. They need tools, such as the dashboards above, to provide situational awareness. The importance of a common operating picture cannot be overstated. It helps decrease the spread of disease and reduce impacts from any health-related event.

Because of the near-real-time information feed on the COVID-19 dashboards, for instance, quick decisions about travel restrictions, quarantines, and airport health screenings were made to protect human lives. A publicly available hub site was developed to assist the global community with relevant COVID-19 information.

The COVID-19 dashboards show clear spatial and temporal visualizations that help officials put the right resources in the right places at the right times to support those already impacted.

While public health emergencies capture global attention, populations depend on responders. To meet this need, emergency planning and response teams must be able to collaborate, communicate, assemble relevant data, and perform analysis. They can then be ready to present that analysis in the form of dashboards and interactive maps. Modern technologies, including GIS, offer foundational support in this important work.

Visit the Data for Development series for more coverage on practical ways that satellite data can be harnessed to support the work of development professionals and aid workers. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #DataForDev.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Este Geraghty

    Este Geraghty is the chief medical officer at Esri. She heads Esri's worldwide health and human services practice and is passionate about transforming health organizations through a geographic approach. Previously, she was the deputy director of the Center for Health Statistics and Informatics at the California Department of Public Health. She is board certified in public health and is also a geographic information system professional.