Geospatial technology in the age of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the entire world. Universities and colleges were forced to rapidly move classes online, cities have implemented far-reaching physical distancing policies, and many businesses have closed or transitioned their options to remote, takeout, or delivery online models. This situation has demonstrated how interconnected our globalized world has become, and exposed existing social and economic inequalities in many cities.
Geospatial technology and spatial data science have been brought to the forefront in the fight against COVID-19. Mapping technology and spatial statistics are being used to track the spread and predict community-based transmission. Apple and Google have formed an alliance to generate anonymized datasets that will link phones that have been in close proximity to each other by using the near-field communication technology embedded in many of these devices – creating a new tool for epidemiologists and virologists to trace contact between COVID-19 cases. In addition, many mobile analytics companies have released anonymized datasets of their users’ activity spaces – creating measures of compliance with physical distancing policies.
The problem with some of these data-first spatial-second science-based approaches to COVID-19 is that many analyses have arrived at erroneous conclusions. A major geolocation analytics firm in the United States recently released measures of compliance with physical distancing. The measure was relatively simple, the percentage decrease from the previous month in a person’s activity space – a polygon feature of the geographic space a person has occupied in a set period of time. However, these measures don’t account for many of the confounding variables that would show a reduced level of compliance, such as; urban form and structure, number of people employed in an essential service occupation, or average distance to a retail food outlet. Bad measures can lead to bad policy, and clearly there is a need for a more geographic informed approach to these analyses.
The surge in popularity of the public realm, particularly in cities, during this pandemic has prompted a range of responses at the local level. In turn, these spaces for many have become the only source of contact with the outdoors and other people, even if they are required to be physically apart. Some places have rapidly expanded their overall space through narrowing roads, or repurposing parks and recreational facilities into field hospitals and screening centres. However, some have closed their facilities in poorly guided attempts to enforce physical distancing, in the process exposing that their communities lack the necessary public space to support their entire population in times of crisis. It would be useful to track which cities have completely closed their public spaces, and calculate their public space available per capita in comparison to communities that have managed to still keep their public spaces open.
Geospatial technology has an important role to play in addressing COVID-19. However, the technology needs to be deployed in ways that are informed by geographic principles and epidemiological theories. There is massive potential for these tools to make it faster and easier to respond to and contain future pandemics. The future is bright for the science of where!