Rachel Steenson FBCS explores how innovative cartographic visualisation technologies are helping in countries, governments and NGOs combat Coronavirus.

The scale of the spread of coronavirus is huge - so huge it can be hard for us to understand. The lives, numbers, countries and statistics involved are astonishing and they are growing every day. GIS, or geographic information systems, is an established technology that fuses location with data, either static or real-time. The resulting visualisations can provide immediate, revealing and scientifically critical insights into a fast-moving situation. Using GIS, complexity can be reduced and insights unlocked.

Esri is a global leader in GIS technology. It is providing a COVID-19 Response Package for global health ministries, Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) partners, public health agencies and other organisations directly responding to the pandemic. Many projects are using Esri’s technology to explore and advise on the spread of the virus.

Why don’t you introduce yourself

‘My name is Rachel Steenson. I am a BCS Fellow and a member of BCS council. I have worked for Esri Ireland for over four years now and I am its market engagement manager for Northern Ireland. Before joining Esri Ireland, I was a civil servant working for Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland in various roles. All in, I have over 15 years’ experience working in the field of spatial data, spatial systems and geographic information systems.’

And tell us about ESRI, what should we all know about the company?

‘Esri is an international supplier of geographic information system software, web GIS and geodatabase management applications. The company is headquartered in Redlands, California. Founded in 1969, we are now the global leader in GIS technology. Esri helps government departments, private sector organisations and charities understand their ecosystem.’

Tell us more about geographic information systems

‘GIS is an enterprise technology framework for collecting, managing, analysing, and sharing data to achieve location intelligence. Rooted in the science of geography, GIS integrates many types of data.

‘It’s not uncommon for GIS solutions to be built around internet of things (IoT feeds), social media intelligence, imagery, demographic and domain specific information and big data. We can take a large pool of different data feeds and represent them as meaningful real-time apps, dashboards and analytical tools. The aim is, of course, to help us all make smarter decisions.’

Can mapping help us uncover stories and patterns that might otherwise be hidden?

‘Through maps, apps, and dashboards, GIS can assist communication efforts. This ranges from sharing a situation assessment with the media and the public to helping the public locate healthcare facilities.

‘Through data visualisation and narrative, story maps contextualise important factors such as age and social vulnerability. Many local governments are producing story maps to show residents what's happening in their area.

‘GIS maps also communicate emergency information regarding school closures, public meeting cancellations and other community disease containment measures. Accurate public information is critical for risk communication and behaviour changes. These can include appropriate hygiene measures and social distancing recommendations.

‘GIS technology is also now a standard component of mass notification systems, enabling community leaders to send out messages to staff, partners, or the public - based on appropriate geographic boundaries.’

Thinking specifically about the coronavirus outbreak, how is data mapping being used?

‘On the global scale, it is being used to show how, over time, the virus is spreading across the world. It is also being deployed for contact tracking and tracing.

‘Other uses cases are predicting health needs and spikes; supporting the delivery of vital PPE and facilitating the delivery of food parcels and medicines to vulnerable residents.

‘Organisations are using mapping to raise awareness of local community support groups and public walking routes. Elsewhere, businesses are using GIS to allow their staff to check in while they work from home or while they volunteer. Transport organisations are using it to ensure they keep the most appropriate services running for key workers.

‘Mapping data is also being used to provide local authorities with key information. We’ve seen uses such as tailored data reports about local demographic, economic and health statistical indicators. These can help plan community response to COVID-19.

‘Maps and visualisations are also an excellent way to present significant amounts of information so it can be quickly and easily interpreted. As such, mapping is being used to collect, collate, integrate and share critical information with frontline NHS staff, GPs and health authority managers.

‘GIS is critical to answering many infectious disease-related questions, including the following:

  • Where are current cases in the community; where will the virus likely spread?
  • Do we have schools in socially vulnerable areas?
  • Which neighbourhoods are distant from a testing site?
  • Do we have communities or specific population demographics that are at greater risk?
  • Which facilities and staff are in harm's way?
  • What does surveillance data on the number of hospitalisations and deaths suggest regarding the following?

    • The distribution of hospital supplies and hospital beds on a regional or statewide basis.
    • How quickly local and regional hospital resources are being depleted.’

How closely has Esri worked with organisations linked directly with the coronavirus front line?

‘Esri has provided its technology free of charge to organisations that want to use ArcGIS software and solutions as part of a COVID-19 response initiative.

‘On a global scale we are working with the World Health Organisation to offer software and services to public health organisations across the world.

‘It is being used to report on cases of COVID-19 at a global scale in projects like the John Hopkins dashboard. On a regional level, the World Health Organisation is deploying the technology. And, on a country level, our tech is being used in Ireland

‘At a local level, Esri UK has been working with various NHS bodies to provide apps and maps for GPs. We have worked with organisations like Transport for West Midlands to help in their response to the pandemic.

‘We have released data like OS MasterMap and the VML Vector Basemap service free of charge to any organisation working to support a COVID-19 effort.

'Esri Ireland is also working in partnership with Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSi) in a collaboration between the Central Statistics Office (CSO), the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Department of Health, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), and the All-Island Research Observatory (AIRO), to create dashboards showing information on infections across Ireland.'

Is your service cloud based: is all the computing power in the cloud?

'We offer both on-site and ‘Software As A Service’ (SaaS) solutions. Most of the Esri COVID-19 dashboards you may have seen recently use ArcGIS online, SaaS solution. Usage of our online platform is approximately doubling every week. We now have some 12 billion requests per day; It used 15 times more bandwidth in March 2020 than it did in March 2019.

‘Looking back at the dashboards we mentioned previously, John Hopkins is seeing a billion views per day - or 1,000 views per second at peak times. Our work with Health Service Executive Ireland sees 30,000 hits per day.’

Talk to us about the ethical implications here: surely a data map is only as good - or honest - as the data itself?

‘Data can, of course, be manipulated by the user to get their message across for good or for ill. At Esri, we work closely with our customers and partners to ensure that, wherever possible, only the highest standards of data visualisations are employed and that data from authoritative data sources is used (NISRA, CSO, ONS, OSNI, OSi, OSGB - to name but a few).’

Mapping is a purely visual medium. How do you ensure maps are accessible - what guidance do you give to creatives and data journalists?

‘Mapping is so much more than a purely visual medium. By combining mapping with data in a geographic information system and using spatial analysis tools, you can derive information to enable organisations to make rich, evidence-based decisions. The application of GIS is being used the globally to make strategy and policy decisions.

‘When creating a map for public consumption, its best to use the basic cartographic rules. These include thinking about your audience and your message. Think about colour schemes, the scale, symbology and legends. Also, don’t try to convey too much information on one map.

‘Keeping your palate limited will help ensure a map is easy to read and understand. Also, think about what it will look like on a mobile device - most people consume information on their phones these days.

‘Finally, consider standard fonts and symbols that will be easily consumed by any browser or operating system. The web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) should be adhered to wherever possible. Give your map a title in plain language that conveys to the viewer what they are looking at.’

What’s the best way to get started, does Esri produce any free tools or tutorials?

‘For schools across the UK and Ireland and most other countries across the world, there is ArcGIS for schools. There are also plenty of YouTube tutorials and starter videos from Esri Ireland and Esri Inc.