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How mapping the pandemic helps international development

Profile of By Greg Scott
By Greg Scott
Inter-regional Advisor, UN-GGIM at United NationsGreg Scott heads up the UN’s Global Geospatial Information Management secretariat, part of the UN’s Statistics Division based in New York. UN-GGIM is an intergovernmental committee made up of geographers that advises countries around the world on geospatial policy, methodology and standards.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of geospatial tools in many industries and sectors, including healthcare. The techniques used to monitor and mitigate the virus’s spread could mark a watershed moment in the use of geospatial technology in international development.

The coronavirus is in many ways a disease that is all about location and spatio-temporal aspects; the virus began in one place. Its transmission is then tied to proximity between and among people, with particles of matter that spread to others over space and time. And our responses to the virus are all about place too; for most of us, it means staying in one place and avoiding others. The secondary impacts – in the case of coronavirus, health services and hospitals, and the knock-on economic and supply-chain effects of a prolonged lockdown – will also be measured and categorised using location.

Data abstract - geospatial software
The proliferation of easy-to-use geospatial software and enabling tools has demonstrated the power and versatility of these previously relatively niche and specialist technology tools.

Since the early days of the pandemic, researchers have been making use of highly visual geospatial tools and applications to record and report the virus’ spread – from local to global levels. One of these, ArcGIS – the Geographic Information System (GIS) software provided by the California-based software company, Esri – maps and, crucially, clearly communicates the spread and impact of the disease and guides decision-making around changes in policy or guidance, all through situational awareness dashboards.

One of the earliest and most well-known Covid-19 dashboards built using ArcGIS was put together by The Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins University. Plug-and-play tools like ArcGIS make it possible for anyone anywhere to build mapping and data dashboards, provided they have some data to work with. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Statistics Division (UNSD) have curated some of these dashboards on its Covid-19 data hub.

The proliferation of easy-to-use geospatial software and enabling tools has demonstrated the power and versatility of these previously relatively niche and specialist technology tools. As a result, we are seeing novel uses of technology and digital transformation as different countries customise dashboards, building them around their specific needs and the data they have available. Some of the most important insights and analyses have come from data at a subnational level; the story of the virus’s spread in Lombardy in northern Italy, for example, was very different to the rest of the country.

Seeing different communities around the world, including those developing countries with very limited capabilities, build their own dashboards, based on their own languages, circumstances and priorities, has been impressive to watch. Through these tools, communities are communicating their experience of the virus as it impacts them specifically, but more importantly what metrics for progress look like from their perspectives. While in the past some countries may have seen the limited value in the role of geospatial data in decision-making, the dynamic nature of the pandemic and urgency required in response has crystallised its importance.

Two women on a device
Many countries have customised dashboards, building them around their specific needs and the data they have available.

One of the mantras we have at the United Nations, and guided by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is that development should be country-led and country-owned. It’s not about telling countries how they should be working towards the SDGs, but supporting them to make progress by leading with their own priorities and metrics for success. What these dashboards show is that philosophy in action.

At the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM), we provide geospatial expertise and advice to countries facing a variety of different challenges, from policy and data challenges to strategic frameworks and methodologies, through to guidance on responding with geospatial information in times of disasters. What we are now seeing with this pandemic is consistency from all nations in that they are all tackling the same problem. The challenge and the tools are consistent, but there is rich variety in the types of data being ingested and the approach different countries are taking. From this, there is much being learned.

However, there are also ongoing challenges. One of the challenges of working with geographical data in reference to Covid-19 is the varying quality and timeliness of the data within countries. Data might be available at the national level, but not at the regional or local level, and more often than not it is out of date. With a fast-moving situation like a pandemic, up-to-date information is paramount. With appropriate governance and institutional arrangements in place for cross-agency data sharing, many sources of data are able to be integrated into geospatial systems and dashboards. Chile is one example of a country that has high levels of disaggregated Covid-19 data that allows for ‘hot spots’ and demographic differences to be examined.

The Covid-19 dashboards built by communities all around the world are a brilliant example of what is possible when countries and communities decide to take ownership of technology and use it to solve specific problems. With strong leadership and good governance, the skills learned from working with geospatial tools to tackle Covid-19 can be applied to solving other societal-level challenges outlined in the UN’s SDGs, like tackling the climate emergency and working to end poverty.

For more information about the role of location data in sustainable development, read this article on geospatial maturity and progress against the SDGs.

To find out more about the use of geospatial data in the response to the pandemic, visit our Covid-19 support page.

Profile of By Greg Scott
By Greg Scott
Inter-regional Advisor, UN-GGIM at United NationsGreg Scott heads up the UN’s Global Geospatial Information Management secretariat, part of the UN’s Statistics Division based in New York. UN-GGIM is an intergovernmental committee made up of geographers that advises countries around the world on geospatial policy, methodology and standards.