The rise of location-based intelligence in pandemic times

We are in the midst of a global pandemic (COVID-19), unprecedented in scale as compared to any previous pandemics in last 50 years. COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by World Health Organization (WHO) on 11th March 2020, about 3 months after the first cases were reported in China. Going back in history, the Spanish Flu in 1918 was the last global pandemic that impacted over 500 million citizens and resulted in close to 50 million deaths. The key difference today, however, lies in the fact that we live in an era of data, where there are numerous technologies that leverage the multitude of data available that provides citizens, governments and corporations with actionable insights. We shall explore how these new technologies are not helping fight the pandemic but also helping us take wiser decisions around where we can travel, whether we should travel and the precautions we need to take. At the core of this newfound intelligence are the complimentary technologies of Geospatial Analytics, Big Data, Predictive Analytics and IoT.

Use Cases of Digital Technologies in Pandemic

In this section, the common use cases that help monitor and manage the COVID-19 pandemic are covered:

  • Contact Tracing ? One of the principal ways to control COVID-19 pandemic rests on detection and containment of clusters of infection and prevention of community transmission to mitigate the impact on citizen health. Mobile applications like Aarogya Setu, developed in India, are helping trace contacts and help citizens take actions around which parts of the city are best to avoid due to higher number of cases.
  • Rapid Testing and Clinical Care ? One of the key drivers in handling the pandemic is rapid testing in hot spot areas to isolate impacted individuals and prevent community spread of infection. Geospatial data of the hot spots in conjunction with testing data can provide unique insights to government departments as well as citizens. To enable social distancing in many instances, patients are home quarantined in case of mild symptoms and tele-conferencing or video conferencing facilities are provided for remote consultation.
  • Data Visualization ? While governments worldwide are making pandemic data sets available, the data may often not be in a form that?s easily comprehended. The differentiator is to use data visualization tools to build easy-to-use dashboards. Data dashboards have been used extensively during the pandemic, collating real-time public health data such as confirmed cases, number of recovered, deaths and testing figures. The regional government in Catalonia, Spain has built such dashboards to help visualize COVID-19 testing data almost instantly. In times of uncertainty, information is power. Dashboards could also be used on vaccination clinical trials data to show the current progress and trends across geographies. Some powerful visualizations and statistics are provided by the site,, which provides a global view of active cases, recovered cases, deaths, ratios such as total cases per million, total deaths per million, total tests as well as a country-specific view if the user intends to drill down into a specific country. Both tabular and graphical representation of data sets makes for a rich user experience.
  • Predictive Analytics ? The numerous data sets including geospatial data, current active cases, recovered cases as well as testing data can be used by machine learning algorithms to predict the peak periods of the pandemic as well as points at which the new cases would be overshadowed by the number of recovered cases. Predictive Analytics can help health departments manage their communications more effectively as well as provide relief based on the analysis of multiple data sets.  
  • National Risk Management ? Systems integrator, Space Sur, has helped build an integrated system that collates data from multiple agencies in Argentina called National System for Comprehensive Risk Management, which provides a one-stop shop for visualizing the spread of the virus. Government agencies can contact and send alerts to citizens using social media and messages in areas which are hot spots for the infection. The system also provides a view of resources available like hospital beds, ambulances and doctors on call.  

The Way Ahead

COVID-19 has changed the way the world thinks and operates. The powerful use of geospatial intelligence will continue to empower governments and citizens as countries and regions grapple with the pandemic and slowly emerge out of it. The economic impact of the pandemic has been staggering both in terms of small business closures, job losses and falling demand for products and services. With lower tax collections, government revenues are falling and most economies are in a downward spiral.

Policy and Economic interventions ? The rich data sets collated as response to the pandemic provide governments with actionable data that can be used to take key decisions. These decisions could range from when to open public transport services to customers as well as open museums, restaurants and bars. Use of geospatial analytics and dashboards can help decide on a variable approach with regions with higher percentage of cases taking more time to get back to normalcy. The geospatial data would also enable governments take decisions around budgeting and economic interventions is more affected areas.

Digital Technologies ? The plethora of technologies in use during the pandemic would continue during the recovery phase to enable governments to monitor the progress of recovery as well as measure effectiveness of policy interventions.

With 67% of the world?s population using mobile phones, and about 3.8 billion people actively using social media, the power of digital technologies in handling epidemics as well as the recovery phase will change for good. Learnings from rich data sets captured would enable governments to factor the effectiveness of responses to pandemics and fine tune their national risk management plans.

The author is Data Platform Solutions Lead at the Services Integration Hub in IBM and has written three books

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