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SoCal County Harnesses GIS for Sharing COVID Data

To make critical information readily available to residents so they can make informed decisions about COVID-19, San Bernardino County’s Dashboard Hub collates and visualizes data as conditions change over time.

These past two years, as COVID-19 swept the globe, municipal residents have needed to know infection and immunization rates, deaths, hospital capacity and more in order to make healthy, informed decisions.

For residents of San Bernardino County, the local health department’s Research, Assessment and Planning (RAP) team was up to the challenge of pulling together insights from disparate data sources. GIS analyst Serene Ong and her RAP associates understood the power of combining data that originated in different agencies and within communities, a task that also required building and maintaining a platform that facilitates this data sharing.

Ong and her team were hired around August 2019. When COVID-19 hit the San Bernardino region, the county relied heavily on various technologies like Tableau, Smartsheet, Microsoft Excel and Qualtrics for data synthesis; GIS technology from Esri’s suite of tools; and programming languages like SAS and Python for automation. Their work made data more useable and accessible so key decision- and policymakers could lead the COVID-19 response, informed by the data.

With the pandemic ongoing, the San Bernardino County COVID-19 Dashboard Hub has continued to grow and expand. The Hub includes data for various stakeholders interested in having easy access to vaccine information, hospital resources, contact tracing and mortality rates. All this data is formatted in a way that makes sense to non-data experts and is dynamically communicated to match the speed with which pandemic trends are changing and emerging. Ong hopes to enhance user functions by including features like time-enabled maps to show changes in data, trends and patterns over time.

RAP, in collaboration with the Communicable Diseases Section and the Preparedness and Response Program in the Department of Public Health, is also creating a dashboard to monitor and surveil influenza-like illnesses. Traditionally, data on respiratory and flu-like illnesses is collected from local hospitals manually, and then compiled into reports that are uploaded and shared online. The reports can include other data from incidental sources like the California Department of Public Health and vital statistics records of deaths due to influenza illness. Since so much of this process was manual, it was inefficient and not very timely. To improve the process and increase data transparency, RAP leveraged automation and mapping technology to enhance not just the overall data collection and reporting process, but to deliver crucial public health information to the public in a timelier manner. According to Ong, the Influenza-like Illness Dashboard will provide “important metrics including confirmed cases, deaths and vaccinations due to influenza-like illnesses.”

The RAP team is also assisting the county on a pilot program that will use mapping and GIS for an asthma intervention program. They are breaking down the demographic characteristics of city neighborhoods, specifically looking at race and examining the correlation between poor air quality and asthma incidences. Spatial location data is key to identifying asthma health risks, environmental or otherwise. San Bernardino County is utilizing the technical data, mapping and GIS to not only analyze but also synthesize the information to inform policy. Ong’s team wants to expand the number of public employees and community group leaders who can understand and utilize the county’s data, which requires some level of GIS understanding.

Ong said she recognizes that part of the challenge to gaining a broader “buy-in” in terms of usage is how the information is visualized and shared. The number of people who benefit from the data shared on the GIS digital platform depends not only on the quality of the data, but also on how it is visualized, and how a multilayered frame of reference supports an up-to-date narrative. San Bernardino County is leading the way in this work, taking on crucial resident questions and providing them with easy-to-understand information that they need to make healthy, informed decisions.

This article first appeared in Government Technology, sister publication of Techwire.