Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
July 8, 2020

Hopkins coronavirus-tracking map is the key source for governments and the public

By PETER NOVELLO and SHIVNI PATEL | May 3, 2020

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Gardner hopes that the popular technological mechanisms on the team’s map may soon become integrated into public health infrastructures to track future outbreaks.  

The Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at the Whiting School of Engineering supported the development of an interactive coronavirus (COVID-19) tracking map to visualize and monitor the evolution of COVID-19 as it spread throughout the world. 

Lauren Gardner, a civil and systems engineer professor at Hopkins and co-director of the CSSE, and Ensheng Dong, her graduate student, built the interactive dashboard that was made public on Jan. 22. The dashboard is maintained by the CSSE and was devised with technical support from the Applied Physics Laboratory and Esri Living Atlas for its mapping platform.

The interactive map is a source for researchers, public health authorities and the general public to gauge the toll of COVID-19 pandemic, and it swiftly became prevalent across news channels, social media sites and other media platforms.

Map Development

Despite the map’s overwhelming presence across different media outlets and academic research reports, it is not Gardner’s first project to make headlines. The team’s efforts to model measles risk in the U.S. also made waves. 

“The [measles] dashboard caught lots of attention including from CNN and The New York Times,” Dong wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

That was Dong’s first project with the team; he is now the “project manager” for the COVID-19 interactive map. 

Gardner has also previously tracked the outbreak of Zika and dengue. In an email to The News-Letter, she described how she is particularly interested in modeling infectious diseases because of the interdependent human and environmental factors that underlie those diseases. That interest, combined with her background in network analysis and mathematical modeling, led to creation of the COVID-19 tracking map. 

Gardner and her team recognized the potential international scope of the COVID-19 outbreak early and took quick action to examine the spread of the virus.

“We decided to model COVID-19 starting in January because we knew the potential threat posted by an emerging infectious disease and we realized early that it had the potential to have an international impact, as was quickly evidenced in our CSSE reports,” she wrote.

The tracking map allows users to toggle between different countries and cities across the world on the virtual map, which are colored with red hotspots to signify the active zones of COVID-19. A dashboard displays the total number of confirmed cases and fatalities, both worldwide and regionally, and it was recently equipped to track the cumulative cases of recoveries. 

The data used to represent the findings on the map is sourced from the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control and the National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China. It is available to the public through a GitHub repository.

However, the data used to power the interactive map changed with the rapid pace of COVID-19’s spread, which caused difficulties in developing the interactive map.

“The main challenges arose because the virus spread so quickly in scope and scale,” Gardner explained. “At the same time we were still developing the infrastructure and data curation process, data sources were constantly changing and expanding as the virus spread from nation to nation.” 

The use of data during the deployment of the interactive map has also changed with the progression of COVID-19’s prevalence across worldwide communities. From Jan. 22-31, data was processed manually and updated twice a day. On Feb. 1, the CSSE employed a new data source, DXY, to semi-automate the map’s data processing. DXY is an online platform maintained by the Chinese medical professionals that reports the total number of cases at the province level in China and updates every 15 minutes. 

For regions such as Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, data is extracted from Twitter and news sources, and it is checked by the respective region’s local health authorities and WHO. 

According to Dong, supporting the extraction of data from those regions which lack effective communication with DXY requires special technological equipment. 

“A powerful cloud server is a must have. A map with a time slider is also what we want to build. It will be helpful to take advantage of AI to find and validate real useful information from news and tweets,” he wrote.

The international presence of the interactive map does not ease the pressures of trying to make seamless, critical changes to the map’s functions, especially since the map boasts 4.5 billion usage requests in a single day. 

“Maintaining a public map of this size in real time requires us to add and remove features while the whole world watches,” Gardener wrote. “Our inboxes quickly swelled with compliments and complaints and suggestions at all hours of day from all corners of the world.” 

According to Gardner, the map updates faster than most government websites. The team has to frequently address questions about the discrepancies between government data and the numbers displayed on the map. 

U.S. Map Development and Updates

The detailed features of the U.S. COVID-19 tracking map took time. On March 23, the dashboard was updated to allow reporting of new cases at the county level in the United States. The red points scattered throughout the map now correspond to the number of cases and fatalities in each respective county. Users can look at statistics on the local, state and national levels. 

The U.S. map also details general trends of COVID-19’s progression, and on how the disease is affecting medical system infrastructure. The work on the U.S. map is led by Beth Blauer, executive director of the Centers for Civic Impact. 

Blauer explained the importance of looking at how COVID-19 disproportionately impacts certain races and ethnicities in the U.S. According to Blauer, the U.S.-based map allows for a greater understanding of the potential disparities.

“We released the race map because we were really disappointed in the level of contribution the states were making in sharing data broken down by race and ethnicity,” Blauer wrote.

The project has not come without its challenges. A lack of consistent data across states and counties in the U.S. poses barriers to data analysis. Blauer explained that state-by-state or county-by-county comparisons are difficult due to the lack of standardization. Nevertheless, she noted that data remains key to finding answers to the many questions surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“People really want answers. They want to know, when is the disease going to be cured? When is there going to be a vaccine? Those are questions that require first, better data, and more time,” she wrote. 

According to Blauer, the granular details in the U.S. map displays data that can be used to answer these questions and others from public health professionals and policy-makers. 

Inspiration for other National and Regional Maps

Gardner explained that the team’s map has inspired similar dashboards around the world.

“Now, multiple states and other nations have been building their own dashboards using Esri, the same platform we built ours on,” Gardner wrote.

One such dashboard was created by two Hopkins alumni who are leading an effort to track COVID-19 in India. Ayushi Mishra and Utkarsh Singh co-founded DronaMaps and were recently included in the Forbes “30 under 30 Asia — Enterprise Technology” 2020 list. The company was creating 3D-maps to assist with urban planning in large cities and villages in various Indian states when the COVID-19 outbreak began in India. 

“Being Hopkins alums, we admired the dashboard released by the CSSE team and proposed that we do something similar for the state governments in India,” Singh said in an interview with The News-Letter

Singh explained that the team was particularly inspired by the trendlines and the logarithmic modeling of the spread of the disease in the Hopkins map. The visual element, which presents information in a digestible manner, was also an inspiration for the DronaMaps team. 

According to Mishra, the company’s previous work analyzing geospatial data and creating appropriate dashboards meant that they were well-equipped and possessed the expertise to create a national dashboard similar to the one created by Gardner’s team.

So far, state-specific dashboards have been implemented across five Indian states: Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Chhattisgarh and Meghalaya. 

“When creating state dashboards, having a global view of the pandemic is important, while also having a in-depth understanding of infrastructure and dynamics at the local level,” Mishra said in an interview with The News-Letter

Singh explained that DronaMaps’ dashboards attained two million views within the first few days of launching them. They also created the COVA app which enables contact-tracing for residents of Punjab. 

According to Mishra, DronaMaps can deploy the dashboard to other states quickly and effectively, in as little as three days.

The dashboards rely on verified data from government sources. They provide a central node for government officials and the public to see reliable data of various factors: the number of positive cases and their locations, geofencing for compliance of lockdowns, predictions of the spread and estimates for the impact on health-care infrastructure.

They plan to continue upkeep of the dashboards until the end of the crisis. 

“Until this point, we were a technology of the future,” Mishra said. “Now we are a need of the moment, not just a luxury. It’s amazing that we were able to re-purpose ourselves in a time of crisis for the country.”

Future Modeling

Although the work on the map has been consuming and constant, the interdisciplinary effort provides gratifying moments according to Hongru Du. Du is a graduate student who worked on the map with Gardner. 

“The most rewarding part is when I know that our map has been recognized by different governments and international organizations like the UN,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Gardner explained that the COVID-19 pandemic has showcased the unique ways in which technology can be employed to model infectious disease outbreaks; it is evident that public health initiatives and technology are becoming inextricably related. 

“The work we have done to launch and maintain the dashboard immediately filled a hole in the international public health infrastructure,” Gardner wrote. “I believe going forward that local, state and national health agencies will develop and deploy some sort of tracking mechanism that is open to the public. ”

If those dashboards openly and transparently share data, according to Gardner, then tracking the progress of the next infectious disease will be more accurate. The popular technological mechanisms on the team’s map may soon become integrated into public health infrastructures to track future outbreaks.

“The international popularity and usefulness of the map shows us that we may want to establish this as a permanent tool and office going forward,” Gardner wrote.“One that is staffed and funded so that the public and public officials know they can turn to our Hopkins team for reliable, credible information on the spread of infectious diseases.”

Trisha Parayil contributed reporting to this article. 

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