Article contributed by Jessie Abbate, PhD, Infectious Disease Ecologist, Epidemiologist, and Geospatial Data Scientist at Geomatys –

During its March 2021 members meeting, the Health Domain Working Group (Health DWG) of the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), the world’s most comprehensive geospatial tech and standards community, convened a Health Summit to collectively ask how geospatial tech and location-based data can contribute to “getting the next pandemic right.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown clear gaps in the global preparedness necessary to face this kind of threat – a threat that disease ecologists expect will likely recur in our lifetime. On the other hand, this pandemic has also highlighted specific opportunities for making the needed improvements. The OGC Health Summit thus brought together global stakeholders and experts to capture those gaps and the geospatial tools poised to address them. Speakers and panelists included leaders in data analytics from the World Health Organization (WHO), government representatives from both large and small US cities, scientists, health systems leaders, and a funding organization.

There were five core takeaways to consider as we move to improve global pandemic preparedness.

Everything is connected by time and place. Geospatial technologies can provide powerful tools in a public health arsenal. From the seemingly simple assembly of a global database for the location of health care facilities to the deployment of air quality sensors on Smart City frameworks, geospatial tools and expertise can connect information to reduce barriers to both data access and its flow to decision-makers. Did you know that 70% of a person’s health outcome can be influenced by factors that correlate with their ZIP Code? Risk mapping is an under-utilized tool in the health space, which can help decision-makers prioritize allocation of often limited public funds. A perfect example, provided by Alan Leidner, President, NY Geospatial Information System and Mapping Organization (GISMO), is the contributions of geospatial data curbing the West Nile epidemic in New York state. Simply by mapping cases and areas at greater risk of spread, authorities were able to focus their efforts to control the disease in the areas where those efforts would have the biggest impacts. This is a beautiful model for how we can proceed.
We have the capacity to provide these geospatial services and databases, we just need the will. “If FedEx can track every package they handle, we should be able to track something as vital as vaccines,” exclaimed keynote speaker Dr. Ramesh S Krishnamurthy, PhD., Senior Adviser in the WHO’s Division of Data, Analytics and Delivery for Impact. “If Uber drivers can get you to the nearest hospital, we should be able to do the same from within the field of health systems and first responders,” he continued. Discussion followed, pointing out that these companies have business models that drive the innovations they rely on. We need comparable investments and business models in the health sector to save both money and lives. Disorganized responses cost both.
We need a common data model. While efforts are underway to federate health data models, they remain challenged by the lack of a single global authoritative initiative and by the delicate and socio-cultural nature of health data itself (see takeaway #4). With respect to this challenge, Dr. Krishnamurthy’s advice was “take baby steps, but do start taking steps”. Rather than worrying about or waiting for an overall taxonomy, he challenged the OGC community: simply getting a list of health facilities would be a huge accomplishment. Capturing location information first will provide the global public health community value – and taxonomy that gives more details on the features of each location can follow.

The hope is that if we can show the undeniable utility of such shared databases, cooperation and buy-in will grow naturally.
The new buzz-word is ‘Political Interoperability’. There are a number of real political issues that will have policy and technical implications. For instance, some of the biggest impediments to finding a global solution to pandemic preparedness is balancing individual patient privacy with public health needs, national sovereignty with transparency and trust in global institutions, and populations’ health needs across dissenting political boundaries with differing perspectives. However, there are ways that technology can address these issues, and make even shared open platforms take into consideration the context of multiple perspectives. Negotiating these waters to build sensitive-minded political interoperability into datasets and platforms will help promote wider uptake and buy-in from stakeholders across political spectra.

Along those same lines, exchanges during the panel discussion highlighted how solutions need to be adaptable to each end-user’s context. For instance, the urgency of the pandemic sped up the deployment of digital technologies in Los Angeles, CA, one of the largest cities in the world. However, the opposite happened in Seat Pleasant, MD, where “as a small city,” said Mayor Eugene W Grant, “our budget wasn’t as flexible as that of a large city,” so all tech advancement projects were put on hold as money was diverted to COVID-19 response efforts.
Avoid reinventing the wheel, and instead learn from other domains. Audience and OGC member Kathi Schleidt noted how many similarities there are between the health and environmental sectors when it comes to collecting, aggregating, and propagating data. A self-described Data Geek, Kathi even wrote an entire post on it back in November 2020 suggesting that it could be worthwhile taking a look what geospatial data tools have been developed in other fields which could be applied to the health domain.

This also applies to other fields, such as economics, transportation, social sciences, and biodiversity. The idea is to federate tools, data, and approaches, rather than coming up with something entirely new. For this reason, the OGC Health DWG took this opportunity to focus the member meeting on this topical subject to invite experts across the whole OGC community to help with defining the needs and ideal specification considerations for a global health SDI that brings together all of these data in a way that is FAIR, useful, and sensitive to the concerns of end users.

The OGC global community, beginning with the OGC Health Domain Working Group, is uniquely positioned to have an impact. If, with our collective experience with geospatial technologies and federated data initiatives, we can solve even a sliver of the challenges to the flow of information that has hindered COVID-19 response, we will inspire greater movement and innovation towards a much-needed global solution.


COVID-19, Health, Pandemic, Spatial Data Infrastructure