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Navigating the unknown

Perhaps the earliest use of geospatial in India for COVID-19 control has been in the state of Kerala. Here, COVID-19 cases were plotted on a map and “heat maps” were created to indicate possible clusters and help delineate containment zones. There have been cases where the travel of COVID-19 affected individuals have been plotted and publicized and a post facto checkout of individuals who might have picked up the infection from these individuals was conducted. While geospatial systems have helped in mapping, the real control has been effected by feet on the ground. Health workers have used the system to keep track of the patients and their movement and contacts.

In sharp contrast are the contact tracing apps which have proliferated worldwide. Originally started by China and then picked up by South Korea, Singapore and India. MIT Technology Review has listed 30 such apps being used all over the world. Apple and Google have worked together to develop an API which has been picked up by 23 countries to create their own contact tracing apps. Most of these apps except the Apple-Google API do invade the privacy of the individual to a lesser or greater degree. Such apps are not a replacement of feet on the ground but only assists such workers. Much is made of individual safety. Consider the much-touted Singapore app. As only one-fifth of the population is using this app, the chances of any two persons in close proximity having this app on their smartphones is just 4%.

The real application of geospatial is when it is combined with other tools like AI. As an article in this edition shows, using these two technologies together, appropriately termed GeoAI, it was possible to detect the unusual cases of pneumonia in Wuhan back in December, which turned out to be COVID-19. Such techniques should be used to locate clusters and potential clusters based on travel data and contact tracing. More importantly, such applications can become an important tool in the armory of the healthcare organizations to sniff out potential pandemics.

An area which geospatial systems need to address is the post pandemic scenario. For one thing, COVID-19 is here to stay. What would be the implications of this to healthcare, travel, transportation, energy sources and industry? It is increasingly clear that the world is not returning to its pre-pandemic state very soon. Lockdowns have showed that the impact of wanton development can be reversed. While we cannot stay in a condition of permanent lockdown, it is clear that controlled development is the way forward. Geospatial technologies can and should provide the necessary information for future planners to help them to find a way towards a sustainable future.

Also Read: From COVID-19 to data revolution: Partnerships are inevitable