How the pandemic was the catalyst for geospatial innovation

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Geospatial technology, or geographic information systems (GIS), has become an essential instrument in multiple areas today: agriculture and aviation, construction and commerce, climate research and law enforcement—the list could go on

The global market of geospatial solutions, according to research by ResearchAndMarkets, is expected to grow dynamically in the next five years, reaching $549.1 billion by 2025. However, in the state of a global health emergency, several niche geospatial solutions along with mobile health app developers have refocused on fighting against the virus.

Innovative geospatial tech applications during the pandemic

Geospatial analytics

As governments began emphasising data-driven decision-making to efficiently address COVID-19 transmission and spread in their countries, geospatial analytics, a method fusing spatial, demographic and statistical data, proved indispensable.

A wealth of dashboards and maps available today supply authorities with the granular real-time dynamics of COVID-19 cases, deaths, recoveries, and hospitalisation locally and globally. Pairing this information with relevant demographic data, such as population age, financial state, housing conditions, activity patterns, and self-reported symptoms, officials get a contextualised view of the region and can easily pinpoint the areas most vulnerable or prone to becoming the hot spot of the disease.

Leveraged by researchers at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, geospatial analysis aided the identification of Spanish areas most in need of protective measures against the COVID-19 outbreak.

Geospatial AI

Artificial intelligence became a strategic ally in humanity’s fight with the coronavirus from the very beginning. Since January, multiple proprietary algorithms have been scanning health reports, news, air travel information, and social media, giving a relatively accurate prediction of the virus’s spread. Some systems also take into account geospatial data from public dashboards in their calculations, but for the time being there are a few solutions emphasising GIS to make COVID-19 predictions.

One example is the state-of-the-art Seattle-based Spectra geospatial platform by BlackSky. The system applies AI to analyse imagery from satellites and commercial monitoring systems and identifies early signs of social and economic recovery in the region, taking into account the number of vehicles on the streets and aeroplanes at the airport, as well as other telltale signs of reviving activity that could be sourced from GIS data.

Other notable geo AI projects are under development by the Penn State University geography research group. Their solution based on predictive modelling will put together satellite imagery, infrared energy, radio-frequency emissions, and population density data with population movement patterns, contact rates, and transmission dynamics to accurately predict potential COVID-19 outbreak zones. Another system this team is building will evaluate Pennsylvania’s food and environmental security during and after the pandemic and predict food system risks.

Geospatial tech and drones

As high-resolution and up-to-date spatial imagery has become a priority in all the geospatial application fields, this domain has seen supercharged data-gathering processes with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones. Nimble, high-performing, and budget-friendly, they have been increasingly applied for geospatial mapping in recent years. Just like drones changing the game for GIS, geospatial tech now accommodates the needs of authorities who employ UAVs in their fight against the virus.
Drone application methods vary from country to country. In Italy and Saudi Arabia, drones measure citizens’ body temperature, while the UK, Ghana, and Chile use them to deliver supplies, protective equipment, and tests to remote areas. Finally, health authorities in China, India, and Indonesia deployed UAVs to disinfect the most affected public areas.
None of these efforts would have been as effective if the authorities didn’t rely on GIS. Geospatial data not only helps to correctly identify heavily affected, inaccessible or vulnerable areas but also helps create a highly-detailed map of residential estates and natural landscapes.

The controversies

From the very beginning of the pandemic, societies and organisations have been raising concerns about solutions accessing and recording user geolocation data, dubbing them an emerging threat to human rights.

For one thing, GPS location data, even though diligently anonymized, can be used to disclose sensitive details about the person’s identity, behavior or activities to the general public. This way, the South Korean movement tracking and recording system has even allowed internet users to expose a cheating couple.

Another concern voiced about coronavirus apps is their lack of transparency. Only a few countries released the source code of their contact tracing and geofencing solutions, without which it is impossible to know for sure whether location data is collected, used, stored, and destroyed the way the developers claim. Furthermore, some tracing apps require users to fill in their personal information, including home address and phone number, which, according to the official line, is used only to contact the infected individual.

To give an objective assessment of today’s contact tracing technology, the MIT Technology Review launched the COVID Tracing Tracker project. The team reviewed 25 government-run coronavirus tracking apps from all over the globe, focusing on their policies for personal data use and location tracking technology. As a result, only a few solutions scored high, while serious privacy and transparency issues were uncovered in the majority of the apps. It’s noteworthy that some GPS-powered apps were found perfectly privacy-friendly, just as some of those employing the high-privacy Google/Apple protocol turned out to be invasive and insecure.

MIT’s unbiased review casts reasonable doubt on the assumption that Bluetooth is a cure-all for privacy breaches and governmental overreach in contact tracing software. For now, it is becoming increasingly evident that the problem may be not in overly revealing geospatial data but in the applications that leverage it and the intentions of those who develop them.

Geospatial technology in the fight against COVID-19

Though the use of geospatial technology in the fight against the virus has proved efficient, the tech was met with resistance from the public and organisations concerned with the potential human rights violation. It is feared that the pandemic will leave some governments with hefty databases of personal records or even a mature technology for pervasive surveillance over their citizens.

Well aware of these implications, most European countries shunned away from GPS contact tracing, awaiting more privacy-preserving protocols to be developed. But as it turns out, the fault may be not in the geospatial tech itself. Still, this controversy prompted some countries to turn away from GIS-powered solutions and opt for contact tracing protocols of a special privacy-centric design.


This piece was written and provided by Itransition’s Healthcare IT Analyst Liza Dzhezhora



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