The Value of Location Intelligence During COVID-19

The devastating scale and effects of COVID-19  are like nothing we’ve seen in modern history.

But unlike the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, we live in an era where data, and the technologies to leverage that data, are ubiquitous. This provides governments and citizens with better information than ever before. It also equips them with tools to better understand and respond to the challenges created by COVID-19. One of the keys issues that dominate the news and public policy discussions is the location and all of its related information.

Being able to dynamically visualize and analyze information about confirmed cases, fatalities, testing facilities, or where to buy supplies is important to how we collectively navigate the health threats and address everyday challenges we now face.  The growing popularity and use of COVID-19 dashboards illustrate the demand for this information. However, government officials, researchers and the media need to connect macro and micro levels of critical operations data to location information. Having dynamic maps that close the gap between the geospatial and operations worlds informs how decision-makers create public health policies, respond to the spread, propose countermeasures and communicate the most effective ways to stay safe.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the fortunate experience to see how several municipal and national governments are developing and implementing dynamic maps and dashboards that help their citizens understand the threat of COVID-19 at local, regional and national levels. By using geospatial technologies and making location data readily available and consumable, these governments are empowering citizens to make informed decisions about procuring essential items, tracking local infection rate and understanding the latest statistics and recommendations.

These are their stories.

Finding and Buying Essential Supplies During COVID-19
As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, staying home has become the new normal. Travel, entertainment, and social gatherings have all been put on hold as residents quarantine themselves in hopes of flattening the curve and slowing the spread of the virus. But what about venturing out to buy necessities, like groceries? Increased demand for essential items has led to dwindling supplies of staples like milk, bread, and toilet paper. And wandering from store to store to find what you need counteracts the benefits created by sheltering in place and self-quarantine.

Just across the Tagus river from Lisbon, the Portuguese city of Almada has launched a location data platform to keep its more than 100,000 residents safe during the pandemic. In just a week, a team developed a platform called Commercial Establishments that takes the guesswork out of shopping for groceries and other essential items. Almada citizens can use the platform to check the hours of operation and supply statuses of essential businesses like gas stations, pharmacies, bakeries, pet stores, and of course supermarkets. Local businesses register with their names, addresses, and phone numbers, then share information to keep citizens informed of what they offer and whether they’re open. The platform allows citizens to narrow down what they see by type of business, location, and open/closed status, making it easier and safer to know where and when they should shop.

Almada officials have promoted the platform on the city’s website and social media accounts, with the hope of reducing the number of uncertainty citizens face amid the ongoing disruptions caused by COVID-19. The Commercial Establishments platform is just one example of how location data and technologies can work together to improve everyday life, in big ways and small — from preventing minor inconveniences to tracking the global spread of the virus.

COVID-19 Testing Data Demystified in Spain’s Catalonia Region
The current pandemic has raised a number of public health concerns. How many people are infected, and where do they reside? How do those numbers stack up against the total number of people tested for the virus? Are there observable trends in the infection rate?

Even when governments make that data openly available, the data may not be in a format that is easy to understand. For example, poring over statistics in spreadsheets can be a laborious, time-consuming process. Realizing that residents wanted a quick and easy way to find answers about COVID-19, the regional government of Catalonia, Spain, built a dynamic dashboard that helps citizens visualize  COVID-19 testing data almost instantly.

The dashboard breaks down COVID-19 test data by result (positive or negative), sex, location, and date. It also charts the location data so that infection trends are easy to spot, and it performs geospatial analysis to give the number of positive tests per 100,000 habitants in each region. The dashboard is featured on Catalonia’s COVID-19 data page, making it easy for citizens to find and use. In times of fear and uncertainty, information is power. By making COVID- 19 testing data and its associated location accessible and easy to understand, Catalonia is giving residents the ability to be proactive and make informed decisions about their health.

Argentina Creates National Risk Management System to Monitor COVID-19
With a constantly changing situation like the COVID-19 outbreak, it can be difficult to keep up with the latest statistics and recommendations. But Argentine officials have found a way to streamline the process of monitoring and sharing information about the virus using a location intelligence and real-time situational awareness platform. Several state and national agencies, including the Civil Protection Secretariat of the Ministry of Security, met to discuss best practices for consolidating and communicating updates about Coronavirus. The solution they arrived at was an application shared across agencies and built by Argentinian systems integrator Space Sur. It’s called the National System for Comprehensive Risk Management (SINAGIR).

At the core of SINAGIR is a geospatial data publication and management server and an advanced geospatial analytics desktop application. Working together in SINAGIR, these technologies provide the ability to store, fuse, process and visualize massive volumes of geographical information, giving users confidence that the decisions they make are based on a complete picture with no missing data. Various government sources will provide and access location information in SINAGIR’s database, resulting in real-time visualization of how the virus is spreading. The digital map also highlights border crossings and specialized medical centers, so that officials can assess the situation and at the same time make plans for how to handle it.

SINAGIR is also a centralized mechanism for contact with citizens. Officials can share information and send alerts through social media networks and text messages. If a particular hot spot on the map shows a higher than the average number of new COVID-19 infections, for example, residents in that area could receive a message informing them and advising them to delay errands like grocery shopping until the spike subsides. SINAGIR collects information about available resources  — hospital beds, ambulances, doctors on call — so COVID-19 cases can be treated as quickly and efficiently as possible. And even after the COVID-19 pandemic has tapered off, SINAGIR can be used to track dengue, measles, and other serious contagious diseases.

Beyond public health uses, SINAGIR allows authorities to collaboratively develop and manage risk maps, turn Big Data into dynamic situational awareness, and perform automated analysis via satellite imagery to provide early warnings of potential disasters, making it what one official called the most advanced risk management solution in Latin America. Officials say the goal is for SINAGIR to reduce the time it takes to mitigate the effects of terrorist attacks, railway accidents, fires, and other calamities. The communication function, meanwhile, can be used to alert residents of the need to evacuate an area when natural disaster strikes, preventing loss of life.

The geospatial component of SINAGIR helps authorities aid those who are affected, and it also enables them to prepare for future events and make plans that avoid repeating mistakes. The capacity for an immediate, coordinated response means people and property will be better protected from the unexpected. SINAGIR is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with 12 people working at any given time. It was launched in the San Cristóbal neighborhood of Buenos Aires, with plans to expand throughout the country. Hopes are that data from civil organizations like volunteer firefighters and even from private sector businesses will eventually make SINAGIR even more robust. Argentina’s example is an excellent argument for the importance of bringing location information and technologies together to create real intelligence. 

What About Tomorrow
We can’t yet predict how long the current health crisis will last or exactly what the world will look like when we come out on the other side. However, there is hope that government officials, researchers and global health organizations will continue to collect and share location data regarding COVID-19 to make our new reality a little less frightening and easier to navigate.

If you take a step back, another positive effect of the current crisis is that it has pushed government officials and other key decision-makers to adopt, develop and implement location technologies that can be used to monitor and manage other disasters like fires, floods and more. Today they’re using data and tools that will help them better understand and respond to tomorrow’s next big event – and all the challenges and problems that come with it.

About the Author:
Jose Luis Peinado is the Vice President of Sales for the Latin America and Iberics region of Hexagon’s Geospatial division. He’s based in Madrid, Spain, and has spent the past 15 years working in information technology, consultancy, engineering, and software.

Website Hexagon Geospatial

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