Smart Mapping Technology Helps Monitor Disease Outbreaks

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 4.25.16 PM
Smart mapping technology Credit: Powered by ESRI

Smart mapping technology – also known as geographic information system (GIS) technology – integrates data from multiple systems, presenting the findings in the format of a dynamic map. By linking data through their common geography, users are able to analyse, visualise, and detect patterns and trends that might otherwise be missed by other types of analyses.

With Ebola, Zika virus and other public health emergencies posing a threat in recent times, doctors and scientists world-over are turning to smart mapping technology to learn more about the disease ravaging the Americas and threatening other tropical and sub-tropical regions across the globe.

Esri Singapore - Thomas Pramotedham
Esri Singapore CEO- Thomas Pramotedham

We spoke to Mr. Thomas Pramotedham, Chief Executive Officer of Esri Singapore  to know more about this fascinating technology. 

Esri Singapore Chief Executive Officer Thomas Pramotedham is regarded as one of Singapore’s leading GIS authorities. In his role as CEO, Thomas partners with many of the country’s most progressive government, commercial and community groups, helping them explore new ways to strengthen their operations with geographic insight.

BIA: How is smart mapping technology revolutionizing the way we keep track of diseases and outbreaks?

Mr.Thomas: The World Health Organisation, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and numerous other public health organisations have all underscored the importance of using GIS technology – also known as smart mapping technology – as a tool ideally suited for infectious diseases surveillance, outbreak investigation and planning and response activities.

Using smart mapping technology as a platform helps health organisations generate maps showing case distribution at multiple scales (e.g. world, country, regional, provincial, and district levels) and predict which populations are most vulnerable based on their proximity to risk. In addition, it also helps local health authorities monitor the disease outbreak, and target specific control and prevention measures.

The technology also gives decision makers greater situational awareness.

During outbreaks and pandemics, public health organisations are stretched by multiple demands. They must coordinate activities with many partners, report to governing bodies and funders, and communicate with the public. By using smart mapping technology, leaders would have a collaborative platform that gives them actionable information on roads, health infrastructure, and other relevant data that are integrated with real-time data on outbreak incidents and locations, hospital status, first responder locations, traffic, weather, and many others. By doing so local health authorities are able to effectively:

  •  Forecast the short-term and long-term impact of events.
  •  Make decisions about resource allocation.
  •  Communicate more effectively with other agencies.
  • Notify vulnerable populations.
  • Implement interventions such as quarantine and isolation.

BIA: Could you provide us with an example of this technology being employed on a global scale in recent times, in this context?

Mr. Thomas: The Ebola outbreak is a prime example of how smart mapping technology was used to manage disease outbreaks. Esri’s Health industry experts in the US assisted the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organisation in their efforts to control and manage Ebola in West Africa.

Throughout the crisis, Esri’s ArcGIS software was used to evaluate disease spread, site treatment units and specialty labs, understand cultural practices around burials, languages spoken transportation routes and more. With such information, health authorities were able to allocate resources and facilities for diagnosis, treatment and care for infected patients.

With smart mapping technology, important epidemiological tasks such as contact tracing (a method to identify and diagnose any persons who may have come into contact with an infected person) can be performed in the field. In the case of Ebola, many people came into contact with the virus through the traditional burial process which involved cleansing the body of the deceased by hand.

Unfortunately, the Ebola virus can be transmitted from a deceased individual after death and their burial process became an important risk factor for contracting Ebola. The visualisations provided by smart mapping technology helped to direct burial teams to the villages where they were needed. They also helped those teams identify appropriate religious leaders to assist bereaved families in safer dignified ways to bury loved ones.

The mapping procedure for Ebola was not a straightforward process, it turned out that the locations and populations of villages in West Africa was not well described or mapped. As experts sought to create foundational maps, they discovered the name of a town or village would appear multiple times in a single prefecture. This could be problematic, for example, when an individual with Ebola disease symptoms steps in to the clinic and states only their village’s name. If the correct village is not identified in a timely manner, it’s possible that delays in contact tracing could lead to increased disease spread. Accurate mapping enhances the ability of our public health officials to monitor diseases and predict future outbreaks.

Apart from using smart mapping technology in the battle against Ebola, the technology was also used to combat diseases such as malaria, dengue, trachoma (the leading cause of preventable blindness), the H1N1 virus (swine flu virus), and many others.

For more details on how organisations such as WHO in their battle against Ebola please refer to this video.

BIA: Where does Esri source the information for such outbreaks?

Mr.Thomas: Esri only uses authoritative data from sources such as the WHO and real-time data from sensors and datasets owned by local authorities such as a country’s Ministry of Health (or other relevant local agency).

We also leverage data from national mapping agencies as basis of our maps and we also leverage our global network of partners to effectively respond to such cases.

BIA: While it may be easy to map this information in real time in technologically connected nations like Singapore, how do you plan to incorporate it in large countries like India and Indonesia? Does the size of the country matter?

Mr.Thomas: Yes it does especially when mapping remote isolated areas, however it does not affect the functionality and effectiveness of the technology. In fact, Esri works together with governments around the world to develop a variety of methods for capturing and mapping data on those areas.

One such is example is the development of National Spatial Data Infrastructures which aims to facilitate the seamless access and sharing of geospatial data to government agencies and citizens.

For Indonesia, Esri worked with their government mapping agency to promote the use of geospatial information in the country. The same can be said for India, the Philippines, Singapore, and many others.

BIA: Is it possible to collect or track epidemiological data like for eg. patients affected by haze or haze-related admissions?

Mr.Thomas: Yes, it is possible. Authoritative sources collected from visiting patients to health institutions provide a good source of patient records. The data is then mapped and analysed to give local health authorities a more dynamic way of studying patterns and trends that can help them develop effective health interventions.

BIA: Who is your intended target audience? Is it going to be an App which public can use or is it going to be mainly employed by governments/institutions?

Mr.Thomas: Smart mapping technology these days applies across a variety of industries in both government and commercial organisations and focuses on ease of use. Unlike in the older days where the technology was used exclusively in the defence sector, the technology’s user-friendly interface allows students, journalists, researchers, and citizens in general to deploy it in variety of ways. Below are examples:

The uprooted (Storymap on the Syrian migrant crisis):

Where is the haze coming from? (created by the Global Forest Watch Fires)

Zika virus: Past, present, and future:

A journey through Star Wars filming locations (created by an avid Star Wars fan):

Apart from creating your storymaps, citizens are also free to use select smart mapping applications from the government to create useful and value-added services. An example would be the Singapore Government’s OneMap, created by the Singapore Land Authority.

OneMap, provides basemaps that you can use to mash up with your own data and publish the map on your own website.

BIA: What are the other unique ways we can take advantage of/leverage this technology?

Mr. Thomas: Health organisations around the world have embraced GIS as a tool for collecting and analysing data, evaluating health programs, and communicating results (internally to policy makers and externally to the public). Apart from analysing the spread of infectious diseases, GIS technology is also used to promote and encourage healthy behaviours (e.g., targeted marketing), protect the public against hazards, respond to disasters and assist communities in recovery (e.g., situational awareness, identification of vulnerable populations), and ensure the quality and accessibility of health services, as well as many other programs and services.

Locally, it’s being used by SingHealth to enhance Singapore’s Emergency Medical Services and by Tan Tock Seng Hospital to understand community health needs.

Apart from the Health industry, the technology is so being used by governments around the world to design liveable cities. In fact, LTA is using it to enhance commuter experience in Singapore and URA is using it to support the sustainable development of Jurong Lake District among others.