Geo-visualising the pandemic: how geography is helping to tell complex stories with data

By Alex Jackman and Stephanie Wyse, RGS-IBG Professional and Policy team, UK

As the editorials published in the journals Progress in Human Geography and Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers this week make clear, the Covid-19 pandemic is fundamentally geographical. Both of these editorials point out various ways in which geographical approaches might inform practical scholarship about the virus and its effects. Alongside this important scholarly work, geographers across academia, government and business are also employing geographical skills and geospatial data analysis to inform immediate responses, bring insight and direction to a highly uncertain situation, and start to imagine what the future may bring.  

Geospatial organisations are contributing their skills and expertise to the UK’s Covid-19 response. Ordnance Survey’s Mapping for Emergencies team is supporting government services across the UK with data, analysis, and modelling. OS have also launched a Covid-19 license to expedite data sharing. The UK Space Agency is providing funding and earth observation capacity for industry, while the EU Copernicus EO programme has been used to monitor changes in transport and mobility as the pandemic has developed.

Government organisations are also using geospatial data directly to manage the response. 42 Engineer Regiment have been working to create visualisations of cases and mapping healthcare locations. In local government, councils in Newport and in Hackney are using the UPRN (Unique Property Reference Number – a unique numeric identifier for every spatial address in Great Britain) to unify disparate datasets and georeference NHS  data to find and support vulnerable people. Others such as Wiltshire Council have used web mapping to help the public access support. 

Globally, governments and businesses are developing systems for contact and proximity tracing at a range of scales, including in the UK, with geographers providing critical perspectives on how these are operationalised, such as Jung Won Sonn’s reflections on South Korea’s use of surveillance technologies in their response. 

Visualising geospatial data has been important to tracking and responding to the emerging pandemic, and the need to communicate the spatial variation in this data has prompted creative and compelling visualisations. The ESRI ArcGIS Living Atlas platform underpins the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus dashboard, one of the first to provide WHO and nationally released data in a map format. ESRI’s mapping resources and datasets have been used by governments and businesses around the world to understand and communicate the spread and impacts of the disease. 

Data from these portals are also transformed to allow new interpretations to emerge. Chartered Geographer Andy Murdock and Maploom have created an open-access, online interactive portal to show the evolution of the pandemic in different countries through interactive maps, dashboards and automatically generated reports, allowing trends for specific countries to be compared side by side by a non-specialist audience. The Financial Times’ daily updates have included breakdowns and analysis at national and sub-national scales, and the visualisations have evolved over the course of the pandemic in response to emerging questions, risks and data from stakeholders.

COVID-19 map and interactive visualisation (kindly provided by Andy Murdock, CGeog (GIS), Managing Director of Maploom), which displays the evolution of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in a format that allows users to select and compare key data for individual countries. 

Cross-sector and cross-disciplinary collaborations have been key, and geographers are also at the heart of these. Professor Mark Birkin is leading a key work-stream within the Royal Society’s Rapid Assistance in Modelling the Pandemic (RAMP) Initiative, connecting epidemic models to transport and urban analytics. In another collaboration, Leeds Institute for Data Analytics has joined the Emer2gent data alliance, with partners including IBM, Google and Rolls Royce, to study changes in population behaviour resulting from the pandemic. The GeoMob meet-up, now virtual, is just one example of informal geospatial communities sharing information, data and techniques to improve coordination and make the work behind responses more transparent.

Commercial and consumer mapping companies including CitymapperApple and Google have helped epidemiologists and governments assess lockdown effectiveness and disease transmission by sharing data on transport and mobility; Ed Parsons has reflected on Google’s Community Mobility Reports in a recent podcast with the GeoMob. A wide range of apps are emerging to support social distancing and context-specific response, for example Carto’s spatially referenced symptom tracker for Madrid captures real-time information about hotspots, while the Crowdless app enables social distancing in supermarkets. Others are highlighting the myriad of ethical issues associated with such applications.

The UK’s geospatial expertise and analysis has been in demand to support the Covid-19 response worldwide – the GRID3 project are working to share resources and build geospatial capacity to support pandemic response in Zambia, the DRC and a number of other sub-Saharan countries. Geospatial specialists are also volunteering their skills to help fight Covid19, for example, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap has added specific tasks to its collaborative mapping projects. 

Novel approaches to communicating Covid-19 impacts have included Tortoise Media’s Corona Shock series (part 1and part 2) which has used graphics based around train routes to demonstrate spatial variation in economic impact in the UK; Tortoise continue to release the underlying data for others to explore. Danny Dorling, with illustrator Kirsten McClure, to produced novel graphs of changes in Covid mortality data over time, while Jordan Tzvetkov at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences has shared maps of mobility (footfall and travel) trends in Europe.

As the virus has moved across the globe at different rates and with different impacts, humanity’s responses have radically changed how we experience the spaces we inhabit. Geographers’ unique ability to connect and visualise data about people, places and phenomena in meaningful ways is helping new audiences to understand the pandemic as it develops, drawing attention to underappreciated impacts, supporting vulnerable populations, and revealing the stories behind the data.

About the authors: Alex Jackman (Professional and Policy Assistant) and Dr Stephanie Wyse (Professional and Policy Manager) are part of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) team working to highlight and celebrate the impact and relevance of geographical skills, knowledge and understanding for policy- and decision-making. The team’s remit includes a range of knowledge exchange activities and managing the Society’s professional accreditation, Chartered Geographer, and they recently launched a new online series celebrating excellence and innovation in Geovisualisation. Stephanie has PhD in geography from King’s College London and has also worked in higher education, central government and the private sector. Alex, also a geographer, has a Masters in International Development from University of Edinburgh. Learn more about the Society’s work with and for professional communities

Suggested Further Reading

Sparke, M. & Anguelov, D. (2020). Contextualising coronavirus geographically. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. See also the RGS-IBG Virtual Special Issue on the same theme. 

Hawthorne, T.L. and Kwan, M.‐P. (2012), Using GIS and perceived distance to understand the unequal geographies of healthcare in lower‐income urban neighbourhoods. The Geographical Journal, 178: 18-30. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4959.2011.00411.x

Sui, D.Z. (2007), Geographic Information Systems and Medical Geography: Toward a New Synergy. Geography Compass, 1: 556-582. doi:10.1111/j.1749-8198.2007.00027.x


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