Geospatial Analysis for Pandemic Response

Why studying Applied Geography is more important than ever

Today was going to be Ryerson University’s Open House for prospective students, those already admitted for Fall 2020 as well as those considering a late application to our programs. The event was cancelled as a consequence of the distancing measures taken to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. As undergraduate program director for the BA Honours in Geographic Analysis and past graduate program director for the MSA in Spatial Analysis, I would like to share some thoughts about why it is now particularly important to recruit bright students into Geography programs.

As you monitor the #COVID-19 news coverage, you can’t help but notice an abundance of maps and graphs. Many politicians and administrators refer to the importance of “the data” to make evidence-based decisions. The data in question are public health data – confirmed and suspected cases, recovered and deceased, tests completed, etc. – and as always, location information is a key component of these data. Geographic concepts such as distance, connectivity, clustering, and scale are at the very core of the issue, since the nature of an infectious disease such as COVID-19 is inherently spatial. But Geography is a meta discipline, its concepts apply across almost all areas of human activity. In addition to public health, it determines retail location decisions, financial transaction monitoring, environmental pollution and conservation efforts, crime pattern analysis, and transportation planning, to name only a very few examples.

Ryerson Today story from February 2018, outlining extensive career opportunities for Geography graduates

Geography programs across North America are struggling to recruit students because it is notoriously difficult to explain our subject matter compared to seemingly clear disciplines such as psychology, outline career opportunities compared to say business or law degrees, and show its visible impact compared to e.g. urban planning. Therefore please pardon me for using the coronavirus crisis to explain the importance of recruiting some of our best high school students into Geography programs. Canada needs these graduates to take on some of the most important analyst, planner, and decision-maker roles in our society!

Geography at Ryerson is deeply committed to offering programs of study and courses that are directly relevant to today’s community needs. In the BA in Geographic Analysis and, at an advanced level, the MSA in Spatial Analysis, we teach technical skills and critical thinking for data analysis, visualization, and interpretation. This winter 2020, students in my course GEO641 “GIS and Decision Support” first used professional geographic information systems (GIS) software to identify areas for possible urban expansion in the Toronto region within the constraints of the Ontario Growth Plan. We then moved on to create indices of neighbourhood wellbeing in Toronto and visualize them in Esri’s Operations Dashboard product, the tool used by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering for their now-famous coronavirus map. The final lab assignment in my course is a web map to explore the United Nations Human Development Index, another real-world example of using GIS to address some of humanity’s greatest challenges.

Esri Canada’s online interactive geospatial dashboard within their COVID-19 resource hub

Along the way, students learn about integrating disparate datasets, handling missing values, properly normalizing indicators, applying sound cartographic styles, and correctly interpreting the results. These are issues encountered in many of the “viral” visualizations of COVID-19, as discussed by Kenneth Field in “Mapping coronavirus, responsibly“. For example, my favourite Toronto newspaper, along with other news outlets and social media influencers, are still mapping global COVID counts using graduated colours (choropleth technique), which conveys false information about the spread of the virus and must not be used for decision-making. The world needs more geographers who are ideally positioned to tell stories behind the data and turn valid insights into proportionate action.

Some of the information collected for Esri Canada’s COVID-19 resource hub is sourced from another industry partner of Geography at Ryerson: Environics Analytics, a “leading data, analytics and marketing services company specializing in geo-demographic segmentation, site evaluation modeling and custom analytics” ( Environics Analytics provides $10,000 per year in scholarships to our students, attesting to the immense importance of geospatial technology training for their business and growing workforce.

Ryerson geographers working as junior and senior GIS analysts as well as undergraduate and graduate interns at BlueDot (as of 2016)

Another example of the connection between Geography and Public Health is BlueDot, a research and consulting firm founded at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, just down the street from Ryerson. BlueDot was widely credited in the media for being one of the first organizations to warn of the novel coronavirus epidemic in China and the threat of its global spread. BlueDot conducts infectious disease modeling and monitoring using big geospatial data, geographic information systems, and artificial intelligence. About 20% of BlueDot’s staff as of early 2020 are Ryerson Geography graduates, primarily working in data engineering and software development, and BlueDot is currently seeking to expand these teams.

A university education in Geography goes well beyond the conceptual and technical competencies needed to analyze and interpret geospatial data in the workplace. Geographers are also equipped with critical thinking skills required to solve complex problems and understand the limitations of analytics. In the context of COVID-19, I notice concerning reports about the extent to which individuals are tracked using cellphone data (e.g. Germany, Israel), the use of drones for policing curfews (e.g. Spain), and general calls for drastic social isolation measures that could become politically dangerous and detrimental to our mental and physical health. Geographers know what is technically possible but also what is at stake, and are therefore among the few professionals that I would trust to balance decisive crisis response with concerns about its long-term implications. We need many more geographers to make the world a better place!