25 August, 2020

How the world has embraced spatial technology during the pandemic

As COVID-19 has spread throughout the world, you may have noticed that you’ve been looking at maps more frequently. You probably see these maps during news bulletins, on social media or on official government websites. Most likely, they are communicating levels of infection, recovery rates or death rates. But beyond the morbid statistics, the science behind the map is what truly enables the potential to communicate change.

The way humans use and interact with location technology has evolved at a staggering rate. When you couple this with the fact that ‘social distancing’ is inherently location-focused - we have become more acutely aware of our where than ever before.

We have taken some time to reflect on this and have looked at some of the most interesting ways spatial technology has been embraced so far to communicate change and impact during the pandemic. 


Innovative ways we've seen spatial technology used during COVID-19:

Tracking positive environmental impact

When people were contained to their homes to impede virus transmission, Earth observations showed us all how much the environment benefited from us simply standing still. You might have seen satellite images of Venice’s clear canals or photos of Chinese cities without their usual thick layer of smog. The example above from the European Space Agency showed us how pollution levels over Europe decreased during the pandemic.

They say 'a picture is worth a thousand words' and we certainly saw how satellite imagery can make people sit up and take notice of the environment benefits from us simply paring back our physical movement - but does that mean that satellite imagery and Earth observations will be used more frequently to guide environmental policy going forward? Our thoughts are yes

Using Earth observations without being a data scientist is definitely possible, the pandemic has reminded us that satellite imagery is a truly powerful communication tool for climate change and environmental initiatives. Where this will become a game changer is at a policy-making level - with governments utilising satellite imagery, remote sensing and Earth observations to make global environmental decisions.

Social impact mapping

Whether it is offering to buy groceries for people at high risk of contracting COVID-19 or showing where the nearest food banks or other social services are located in proximity to you, the pandemic has shown us that when you remove the financial barriers that are sometimes associated with using mapping technology, you can use spatial science to do some pretty amazing things. 

Take for instance the #StudentsAgainstCorona group. They mobilised fellow students around the world to help vulnerable people within their communities. They built a platform using CARTO to make it easier for volunteers, community groups and those in need to connect with each other. The map also made it possible for local authorities to source individuals or groups of volunteers matching specific criteria and locations.

Contact tracing

Yes, albeit quite controversial, the evolution of spatial data science in the past decade means that governments are now able to track people more effectively during a pandemic. In Australia, we have seen this come in the form of the COVID Safe App. 

It’s a polarising topic and people are raising questions about what this means for their privacy - but the point cannot be argued that using location intelligence to track the movement of people during a pandemic is incredibly useful when it comes to virus containment. It begs the question about what this might’ve meant for previous global pandemics had the technology been more advanced and available then. 

Virus recovery and containment

There is more value to mapping than using it as a simple reporting tool. Crucially, mapping and GIS is part of the complex fight against the virus - this is something we have seen done particularly well during COVID-19. Spatial data science is used to help us track how the virus moves and evolves in areas, maps are showing us our lockdown areas and boundaries that we must abide within to contain the virus - and eventually, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) will help us start the mammoth task of rolling out vaccinations around the world.

Using GIS to identify containment zones and priority areas of where vaccination measures should be taken is not a concept that is new to health organisations, scientists and epidemiologists, it’s been happening for a long time.

Let’s use the tracking, containment and vaccination outlay for polio as an example. If you’ve seen the Netflix documentary ‘Inside Bill’s Brain’, you would know that GIS was a crucial tool in targeting specific areas for immunisation efforts. The same should be expected for COVID-19 once successful clinical trials for the vaccine are complete, and at a more digitally advanced level than we have seen in the past. 

Indoor mapping entering the mainstream

The whole idea of social distancing is based on your proximity to the person next to you, and with recent research from the Environmental Protection Agency showing that the average American spends up to 93% of their lives indoors, many businesses have been left wondering how they will be able to comply with social distancing measures for the foreseeable future. 

This is where we will see indoor spatial technology come to the fore. Many location technology companies are now responding to the pandemic by working indoor mapping capabilities into their product offering - but there are plenty of companies that have been doing this for a long time. This could mean that facilities such as stadiums, large corporate offices, shopping centres and airports may have more options when it comes to re-opening their properties in a ‘social distancing approved’ way. 

Spatial technology will continue to help us solve problems beyond the pandemic

The best of spatial technology is certainly still to come and its value cannot be denied. What COVID-19 has shown us is that we almost always turn to GIS in times of crisis to help us report, explore, monitor and solve problems. 

The question we should be asking is - how can we use what we have learnt about spatial technology in 2020 to create a better, safer and more sustainable world? The answer is, quite literally, at our fingertips. 

With spatial technology and data sources more accessible than ever before - we expect to see spatial innovation solving problems and changing our world for the better, and at a rapid rate. Watch this space.

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