New Geography Data Apps Track, Analyze Coronavirus Spread

johns hopkins university is among groups spatially monitoring coronavirus

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Climates and geographic regions provide key data on the coronavirus, a Forbes column said recently. Institutions like Johns Hopkins University offer data that tracks and analyzes the spread of the disease by physical location. Geography is sometimes key to slowing diseases.

Digital globe concept about tablet, close up
Geographic Information System (GIS) technology tracks and provides real-time mapping of worldwide epidemics. Photo by PopTika / Shutterstock

Marshall Shepherd, the atmospheric scientist behind the Forbes column about geography and the coronavirus, explained the modern uses of geographic information. “Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are ways to organize, present, and analyze spatial and geographic data,” he said. “You probably don’t realize it, but Waze or Google Maps fall within the realm of GISscience. Both of these apps likely benefit you daily.”

Not only can GIS let you know when a disease is making its way to your doorstep, but it can also be key to understanding how diseases spread—and the preventative measures to take against them. Had this technology existed several centuries ago, the Black Death could have been stopped, or at least slowed, in its tracks, saving millions of lives. SARS, the current coronavirus’s nearest genetic cousin, has also been studied and learned from geographically.

Tracking the SARS Spread

Like the current coronavirus, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) began in China. It’s believed that it affected rural farming communities throughout early 2002, before spreading worldwide.

“An American businessman on a flight to Singapore died of the disease in early 2003, and the medical staff that treated him in Hanoi caught the disease, and this set off a global alert—but by then, it was too late,” said Dr. Paul Robbins, Director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Cases were already being reported in Toronto, and in San Francisco, and in Manila, and Hong Kong, with the disease bouncing through hospitals and hotels, propelled by long-distance travel.”

Unlike the 2019-2020 novel coronavirus, it took some time to trace SARS back to its point of origin. This time, almost immediately, we knew that the coronavirus began in Wuhan, China.

Stopping the Spread

This is where geography comes in. Even before global groups like the World Health Organization (WHO) knew SARS had originated in rural China, they knew about the traveling American businessman and they began their response quickly.

Dr. Robbins said that health authorities like the WHO responded to the SARS outbreak in a “specifically spatial way” by releasing travel warnings and trying to slow the rate of the movement of people, infected and uninfected alike.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by the time the 2003 SARS outbreak was quelled, “a total of 8,098 probable SARS cases were reported to the WHO from 29 countries, including 29 cases from the United States; 774 SARS-related deaths (case-fatality rate: 9.6%) were reported, none of which occurred in the United States.”

So what did we learn from responding to SARS on a geographical level and limiting travel?

“The last reported case of the disease was 2004,” Dr. Robbins said. “The bottom line in the SARS case is the way the global system, as an integrated network of free trade and largely unrestricted travel, is one that makes disease geographies extremely difficult to govern.”

That may be the case, but limiting travel seemed to have helped enough in 2003 that a similar model is being pushed worldwide right now. Restricting nonessential travel, practicing social distancing, and working from home whenever possible are all ideas that authorities suggest to stem the tide of new infections.

Dr. Paul Robbins contributed to this article. Dr. Robbins is the Director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a master’s degree and a doctorate in Geography from Clark University.