How GIS Analysts Are Using Maps to Help Cities During COVID-19 and Beyond

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Meet the Expert: Leilei Duan, PhD

Leilei Duan

Dr. Leilei Duan is a lecturer with the Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California. She earned her PhD in design, construction, and planning from the University of Florida. Prior to joining the faculty at the Spatial Science Institute, Duan was an instructor for 3D modeling, visualization, and simulation at University of Florida. Her current research and teaching interests include the application of GIS in urban planning and other aspects of GeoDesign.

Duan has presented her research at numerous conferences, including those of the Geodesign Summit and the American Association of Geographers. She is also the founder and administrator of the GeoDesign Wiki website.

GIS in Action: Comparing City Features

Urban Observatory, an interactive web-based exhibit that launched in 2013, is a very basic example of how GIS data can be brought to life. Its users can view and compare maps of different cities based on five main themes: work, movement, people, public, and systems. Within those themes are even more granular comparison points, such as traffic noise, senior population, predominant occupations, flood zones, or health resources. The information is represented and visualized in a cartographic form that can be understood by the citizen and the scientist simultaneously. There’s no jargon or language barrier. It speaks for itself.

“GIS is really helping us to communicate with each other, even if we're from different disciplines,” Duan says.

How GIS Tracks COVID-19 Cases Across the World

Most of the world got a firsthand look at GIS in early 2020, when Johns Hopkins University developed its interactive map of the COVID-19 pandemic. The map regularly updates the number of confirmed cases, administered tests, patient deaths, and patient recoveries across the world. Users can access local data, global data, or even critical emerging trends within that data. Local governments rely on it to inform their own decision models and policy response. This is data that’s saving lives.

“In the case of a pandemic, it's useful to map different spaces in different cities, see their case changes, and look at the timeline of when they adopted certain policies, and whether their curve has become flat,” Duan says. “GIS can reveal a lot of these things that we do not pay attention to when we just look at data normally.”

GIS can also be helpful in evaluating how urban design could have contributed to some cities being hit harder than others by the pandemic. How important is, say, population density? Or reliance on public transportation? What public health resources are available, and where? This evaluation can, in turn, inform better urban design choices and crisis responses in the future.

“There are discussions going on today, among urban planners that are working in academia, about how we can rethink city design given what we learn from this pandemic,” Duan says.

Duan also points to how previous trends in urban planning and design might change in light of this most recent pandemic. Up until recently, the desire to limit urban sprawl in the US largely necessitated the need for cities to build upward, and thus increase population density. But with social distancing being a critical step in limiting the spread of infectious disease, the public could feel a renewed interest in suburban development, and urban planning would need to rethink some core principles.

“No matter what solutions or what new paradigm we're going to see, it's definitely going to come in part from GIS analysis,” Duan says.

The better you can measure and map a problem, the better chance you have of solving it. While the recent pandemic provides a teachable use case for that axiom, it’s hardly news to the urban planning community. In the 21st century, GIS has become a go-to decision-making tool and change agent for cities around the globe.

Other Useful Applications of GIS

In the Netherlands, Rotterdam has used GIS to enable a smart port management system, PortMaps, for the busiest port in Europe; with three mouse clicks, users can access information about any asset in the port. The Philadelphia-based Community Design Collaborative uses GIS to identify land that could be either revitalized or converted into green space, factoring in data points like walkability, sustainability, and community need. In Spain, Barcelona uses geospatial data from traffic light sensors to track noise, pollution, traffic, and crowds; it also uses sensors in parking spaces to collect data on parking patterns, which then improves the management of urban mobility.

“Everything about urban planning is linked together,” Duan says. “GIS is just a tool to help reveal the underlying problems.”

One idea gaining traction in the GIS community is the creation of a ‘digital twin’ for specific cities. This would allow analysts to simulate a wide variety of different hypothetical scenarios, and then learn from the possible outcomes. Such a tool could help redesign cities, save lives, and alter the way we prepare for crises.

Several challenges remain. Some cities, like San Francisco, are data rich; others, in more rural areas, are data poor. Similarly, tech behemoths like Amazon and Google have both the data and the computing power to perform astounding feats of GIS analysis; small companies (and small cities) do not. The question of individual data privacy squirms throughout.

“As we have more and more data available, the issues of data privacy and how much data we can use definitely needs to be discussed more and more,” Duan says.

Clear policies and greater collaboration between stakeholders can help. The Abu Dhabi Spatial Data Infrastructure (AD-SDI), launched in 2007, now includes more than 70 government and quasi-government agencies. The initiative includes practically every sector imaginable: urban planning, infrastructure, environment, cultural heritage, public health, business, education, safety, and security. All members of the initiative are required to share geospatial data with one another, and thereby make it easier for government agencies and other stakeholders to leverage what the initiative calls location intelligence.

The AD-SDI has a geospatial portal, a website, and a data clearinghouse. It includes a clear framework for community engagement, and formal agreements for data provision and data sharing. The greater levels of collaboration between partners have led to better stakeholder decisions, and resulted in social, economic, and environmental benefits that add up to a tangible return on investment.

So far, the US relies on predominantly regional organizations: Los Angeles has its GeoHub; the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), which is the nation’s largest metropolitan planning organization (MPO), hosts its own GIS data portal. The more these regional entities can be linked with their counterparts across the nation and in other parts of the world, the quicker (and more accurately) GIS problems will be analyzed and solved.

“In order for the East Coast to collaborate with the Midwest and the West Coast, you have to have a very open portal that has a standard data schema,” Duan says. “Then everybody basically can download the data, and, without much data cleaning, just use it. That’s definitely the way moving forward.”

Since over 80 percent of American adults own smartphones, much of the data infrastructure already exists for future GIS projects in American cities. It’s up to local governments to make progress in connectivity and collaboration. From there, urban planning and city management can take a step towards realizing their full potential, unlocked by a new crop of multidisciplinary professionals who are fluent in GIS.

“GIS is telling stories in every field,” Duan says. “We’re just trying to overcome that barrier of not too many people knowing about it.”

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