GIS – and Citizen Science – are leading the fight against COVID-19

Hello Backyard Geographers!

        As the COVID-19 pandemic shakes the world, GIS finds itself at the forefront of this fight. Geographic Information Systems – GIS for short – is a primary way to map data and disseminate information to keep tabs on this pandemic as it spreads and evolves. The power of GIS is not just being realized, however; since first being coined in 1968 by Roger Tomlinson, it has been known to have applications in nearly every field, from public safety to sustainability to healthcare and beyond. The power of GIS is becoming more apparent to the general public as it is being utilized to document how the COVID-19 pandemic progresses. GIS allows for different layers of data to be shown in a singular map, creating the opportunity to visualize COVID-19 data atop data on race, socioeconomic status, population density, etc. to see any instances of correlation.

        This ability to collect data and map it in an effort to disseminate information on COVID-19 is not limited to cartographers and those fluent in GIS. We see many doing what they can to help others at this time, as evidenced by droves of people crafting handmade masks or delivering groceries for others. But for those with GIS skills, there are opportunities to help various organizations via public participation GIS, including Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, GIS Corps, MapSwipe and more (read about their work here). Esri, a leader in the GIS field, has delineated a 5-step plan for citizen scientists to respond to the pandemic, according to its website:

  1. Map the Cases – Map confirmed and active cases, deaths, and recoveries to identify where COVID-19 infections exist and have occurred.
  2. Map the Spread – Time-enabled maps can reveal how infections spread over time and where you may want to target interventions.
  3. Map Vulnerable Populations – COVID‑19 disproportionally impacts certain demographics such as the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Mapping social vulnerability, age, and other factors helps you monitor at-risk groups and regions you serve.
  4. Map your Capacity – Map facilities, employees or citizens, medical resources, equipment, goods, and services to understand and respond to current and potential impacts of COVID‑19.
  5. Communicate with Maps – Use interactive web maps, dashboard apps, and story maps to help rapidly communicate your situation so everyone stays aware.”

        This increase in citizen science is visible on ArcGIS Online, the online version of Esri’s ArcGIS suite of GIS software. When searching “COVID-19” on ArcGIS Online, more than 10,000 results show up, indicating that the public has already taken to the job of mapping the pandemic. Some of the maps are from universities, hospitals, and other institutions, with Johns Hopkins University leading the pack (its COVID-19 map on ArcGIS Online currently has over 52,000,000 views). With this being said, there is always more mapping to be done; there tends to be an emphasis on mapping large cities, leaving smaller towns unmapped. If everyone pitches in and maps what they can using the public participation GIS resources presented here, it would be to the benefit of not only one’s town and state, but to the nation and the world. For more information on how you can engage in public participation GIS and put your skills to use, click here.


For a worldwide map from Esri’s COVID-19 Overview, click here.

For a United States-specific map from Johns Hopkins University, click here.

For an Illinois-specific map from of Western Illinois University, click here.


Wishing you peace and health,


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