Maps and epidemics

Published on March 20

In the face of rapidly expanding infectious outbreaks, the concentration of the population in urban centers has always been a threat to humanity. Indeed, the origin of epidemiology as a study of the spread of disease is closely related to the Industrial Revolution and the process of urbanization.

From the beginning, maps have become a fundamental tool for epidemiology. Doctor John Snow’s maps of London’s cholera outbreak in the mid-19th century are famous, as they allowed him to show that the epidemic spread was in fact through contaminated water, not the air as believed to date.

The remarkable advancement of geospatial technologies in recent decades has enhanced this legacy. Today, digitized geospatial referencing is one of the most powerful tools available to make decisions about territorial location and the evolution of social problems, as they facilitate the presentation of complex information, while enabling it to be updated in real time. Today, there are numerous experiences that demonstrate the importance of mapping in addressing health and environmental issues. One example is Missing Maps, an open and collaborative initiative by Doctors Without Borders to assist in disaster response.

As COVID-19 spreads around the world, more and more people rely on online maps to learn about the updated state of the pandemic. The interactive map released by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in late January is one of the world’s leading sources of information. The tool allows to visualize in real time the location and the number of confirmed cases, deaths and recoveries in each affected country, using GIS technology. The number of data queries provided by this platform is now 1.2 trillion.

Other similar global initiatives include the World Health Organization’s platform, Channel News Asia and the University of Virginia platform, which allow you to visualize the daily historical evolution of COVID-19. Geographic software company Esri developed a Story Map that allows to visualize the history of the outbreak from the Huanan market in the center of Wuhan and its progressive spread in the world. In Singapore, a school of developers created a platform that allows to visualize the evolution of the virus and its location in the state city.

Many countries are turning to smart localization technologies to find ways to understand and better contain COVID-19. China, Iran, Israel and Taiwan, among other countries, are already using cell phone data to track the locations of people infected with Coronavirus and those they may have had contact with. Even some digital platforms like Facebook are developing maps that visualize people’s movement in areas with higher COVID-19 case concentrations, in order to reveal patterns of virus spread. However, this use of localization technologies raises serious questions about citizens’ right to privacy: is it possible to limit this right in the public interest of a global health emergency?

In Argentina, a joint initiative between the Association of Information and Communication Technologies of Mar del Plata (ATICMA), the Argentine Chamber of Industry of Software (CESSI) and a Marplatense company, resulted in the development of the Testeate application that provides information, requests detection tests and one can know its results and geolocate the approximate areas indicated by quarantined people.

Digital technologies are enabling reporting on COVID-19 crises and providing real-time responses on a scale never seen before in human history. These have facilitated rapid decision-making on travel restrictions, quarantines and health checks at airports and borders to protect human lives.

The world will not be the same once we overcome this crisis. Undoubtedly, new challenges and imperatives will arise. One of them will be inescapable: will we be able to build better data infrastructure and urban statistics to take advantage of the opportunities provided by geotechnologies and improve our analytics, decision-making and early warning capabilities?


Sebastián Lew

Director of the Cities Program

Melina Nacke

Coordinator of the Cities Program

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