Geospatial Information for COVID-19

Geospatial Information behind Effective Pandemic Management and Community Resilience

In her keynote address at the framework of the 7th Session of the UN-GGIM: Americas, the Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Alicia Bárcena talked about the importance of Geospatial information in pandemic management, “because it allows for vulnerability to be determined using a disaggregated view of the territory.”

The COVID-19 crisis may have highlighted several critical structural gaps and asymmetries across the world, but has certainly established the role of Geospatial technologies in detecting, tracking, evaluating and responding to the outbreak. Authorities have had to rely on measures that are inherently spatial in nature, such as quarantining, contact tracing and social distancing, thus rendering Geospatial intelligence and technologies crucial for effective pandemic management throughout.

The Importance of Location Information in Pandemic Management

One of the most critical aspects to decision making associated with large disease outbreaks such as the COVID-19 pandemic, location intelligence and situational awareness is considerably helping organizations at the local, regional and national levels visualise, analyse and communicate key concerns.

COVID-19 Dashboards using Geospatial Information

COVID-19 Dashboards using Geospatial Information

A major aspect of pandemic is essentially a geographic and location issue. Geospatial information has proved paramount in steps to detect the outbreak, such as contact tracing, determining hotspots and demarcating high-risk locations so that help can be immediately disbursed where it is needed the most. Advanced tools and technologies have helped collect vital data, map the current crisis beyond borders, and simulate results from modelling response variables.

Early 2020 witnessed an extraordinary collaborative effort across the world on data sharing to understand and respond to the virus outbreak at local, national and global levels. Location information was critical in this response, such as determining sites for setting up quarantine centres, emergency clinics, oxygen support camps, and so on. At the same time, enforcement of public health and social distancing guidelines, and the monitoring of supply chain logistics and response efforts have become much easier even for vast countries like India with the help of Geospatial information.

Challenges and Strategies: Learnings from India and Around the World

The pandemic called for a bottom-up approach to pandemic management and response right from the home to the neighbourhood, area, city, district, state, country and global levels. One of the biggest challenges in such a scenario was to build strong situational awareness among the key stakeholders.

Drones have been used in delivery of vaccines in North East India

Drones have been used in delivery of vaccines in North East India; Source: WEForum

The pandemic is not an instant where traditional surveillance, case management or outbreak response activities are of much help, with insufficient data available to take up tasks such as community containment decisions, specific social distancing interventions, medication distribution management and communication with the public in real-time.

However, India and other countries have been able to robustly answer these challenges, with Geospatial information playing a highly appreciative role in this regard.

India: Integrated Geospatial Platform, War Rooms and Other Initiatives

In its November 2020 report titled “Geospatial Practices for Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific 2020”, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) highlighted 100 best practices from lover 25 countries in the region, including India.

BHUVAN Geoportal

The report cited the incredible role being played by ‘BHUVAN’ – India’s national geo-portal developed and hosted by the Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO) in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. BHUVAN offers more than 6000 map services under various applications with 1 m resolution satellite data spanning more than 350 cities.]

Bhuvan Geoportal

Bhuvan Geoportal

This portal is providing several encouraging applications, such as a dedicated COVID-19 dashboard that highlights both state-wise and pan India scenario in terms of disease growth, cases, deaths and recoveries in sync with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, besides home quarantine trackers, containment strategy interfaces and platforms for citizens to report COVID-19 symptoms from smartphones itself, enabling government officers to plan responses actively.

Integrated Geospatial Platform, Department of Science and Technology

Constructed out of various Geospatial datasets, standards-based services and analytic tools, the Integrated Geospatial Platform launched by DST, Government of India, is shaping decision-making during the crisis and development of area-specific strategies and spans multiple applications and web portals. The mobile application and web portal of SAHYOG prepared and managed by the Survey of India has been customised to collect COVID-specific Geospatial datasets through community engagement, with all key information parameters for such purpose having been incorporated in the application.

SAHYOG complements the Aarogya Setu mobile application launched by the Government for bottom-up contact tracing and self-assessment, besides spreading public awareness. Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab, and Jammu & Kashmir are using dedicated State Spatial Data Infrastructure (SSDI) to provide collateral standards-based Geospatial data services to state and district-level authorities. This data can be integrated with related health data sets, which can further be used to combat the pandemic more effectively.

COVID-19 War Rooms

Integrated command and control centres (ICCCs) designed for the Smart Cities Mission are being used as dedicated COVID-19 war rooms for surveillance and monitoring of COVID-19 affected districts across states using real-time data monitoring, tracking and mapping across various geographic zones in the city. CCTV surveillance of public places is being paired with GIS mapping of COVID-positive cases and GPS tracking of healthcare workers in high-risk states to curb the outbreak.

At the same time, states and ICCCs are working in coordination with the central command in New Delhi for real-time tracking of ambulances and disinfection services, predictive analytics for virus containment across various zones and to take necessary action in monitoring movements using geo-fencing. Integrated dashboards of smart cities have played a major role in monitoring health services, traffic movement, supply chains and connectivity across states.

Examples from Around the World: Geospatial Intelligence for Managing the Outbreak

Lessons from the SARS and MERS outbreaks had prompted early investment in Geospatial information and systems in East Asia and the Pacific. Location data from phones and cards, credit card transactions, CCTV footages and travel history of individuals have been used in the Republic of Korea to crack down on high-priority cases and patient tracking. The Korean National Spatial Data Infrastructure Portal ensures collaboration on Geospatial information among various Ministries and verticals – land, infrastructure, transport, communications, ICT, disease control, police, and more – to create interlinked databases that have helped incredibly in establishing warning systems, tracking tools, and so on.

Dedicated smartphone applications tracking close contacts through Bluetooth technology are in place in Singapore, while mobile QR codes signifying health and infection risk status are being used in China.

Besides mapping, spatial temporal analysis to assess ground level risk factors even in severely affected areas have been enabled in many countries. Gravity spatial models of transmission for the pandemic are helping authorities facilitate quick response and faster decision-making processes. Applications for contact tracing were launched in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Germany and Denmark, to name a few.

Global organizations have also stepped in to monitor, measure and analyse impacts of the disease across various parameters. ESA, NASA and JAXA have joined hands to produce global view of COVID-19 impacts. The Centres for Disease Control (CDC) produces the Social Vulnerability Index using geo-data as its foundation to help officials identify communities at the ground level that may be in dire need of support during or after the pandemic. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Humanitarian Data Exchange has made available specific datasets for use in pandemic management, including mobility patterns, testing data, and so on. Interestingly, these are only a handful of many Geospatial technology applications that have shaped COVID-19 response and management over the last two years.

Beyond COVID-19: Paving the Way for Sustainable Development

The pandemic and the response to it by local, national and global organisations have already made it clear that Geospatial information and technologies are a crucial aspect of analysis, monitoring and accomplishment of spatial goals, besides a strong basis for policymaking.

These benefits can help countries across the world, including India, create and implement a strategic approach towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which requires focus on core competencies right from the grassroots level.

From economic empowerment to improved ease of living, from universalized access to nutrition, health and education to developing capabilities for entrepreneurship and employment, the vision of building sustainable and inclusive nations relies on the very pillars of Geospatial information and technologies.