covid-19 Technology

Data artists and app developers offer new ways of tracking the path of the Coronavirus

Representative image of a UX designer mapping out the design of an app

Representative image of a UX designer mapping out the design of an app   | Photo Credit: Chaosamran_Studio for Getty Images/iStockphoto

Visualisation also makes it easier to detect patterns, trends, and outliers in groups of data, while apps aim to make understanding on-the-go

As more people across the country are encouraged to work from home, televised news, social media and online forums combined can either be an enlightening or fear-mongering source of information.

And with social distancing now a thing, one can only look at their phone or laptop so many times a day for accurate updates about the spread of COVID-19. Fortunately, a few tech companies are looking to make a contribution to eradicate the fake news floating around, using apps backed by data from official health organisations and medical institutes.

Mobile conundrums
  • An app, by definition, has to make mobile life easier so it is understandable that an app will not be a go-to for medical data. In fact, do a simple search of COVID-19 on any app store and you may not see promising results. A number of questionable apps flooded into app stores across compatibilities since Coronavirus started making headlines, and many of these apps have been flagged for phishing and other malicious activity.
  • Apple’s App Store and Google Play store moderators are rejecting these apps after doing intense background checks with alerts from suspicious customers. There are, however, developers who want to create helpful apps but they have been rejected as they are not from recognised institutions like governments or hospitals. This is where developers have decided to collaborate with these verified institutions, but need more diversity in providing accurate by-region data internationally.

First, the world saw an app launched on February 8 by NHC, General Office of the State Council and China Electronics Technology Group Corporations (CETC) with support from other government agencies.

This app’s goal is to help people find their risk of contracting coronavirus referred to as ‘close contact detector’. Users must provide their phone number, name and ID number to check if they were in close contact — being in close distance, without any effective protection, with confirmed, suspected or mild cases when the person was ill or asymptomatic — with an infected patient.

A February 11 article by MIT Technology Review critiques the app, explaining, “Such an app would not be possible without the Chinese government’s pervasive, high-tech surveillance of its citizens. A national video camera network, facial recognition software, and Artificial Intelligence combine to ensure that anonymity is almost impossible, although it is not clear which elements are being used to power the app. In any case, it is unlikely to be controversial in China, where attitudes to privacy and freedom differ to the West’s.”

However, there is no concrete information on the accessibility of this app to those outside of China.

A map for mankind

Shriphani Palakodety, a data scientist and artist based in Palo Alto, California, points out that the data visualisations bred from different corners of the Internet are inspiring, even if the subject matter is harrowing.

“This time around, a lot of dashboards went up very quickly showing deaths by location, and other instances. Almost all of them use the dataset compiled by Johns Hopkins which they update everyday. Some of the more interesting stuff came after the last Ebola outbreak, especially from the New England Complex Systems Institute. This for instance is where the value of intervention becomes clear — that is for Ebola but you can switch the parameters and it’ll work fine for COVID-19 on a possibly accelerated timeline.”

A screenshot of the social distancing simulation by The Washington Post published with the story ‘Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially and how to ‘flatten the curve’’ by Harry Stevens

A screenshot of the social distancing simulation by The Washington Post published with the story ‘Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially and how to ‘flatten the curve’’ by Harry Stevens  

Shriphani adds that some of the interesting visualisation-animations have come from The Washington Post on March 14 which speaks about social distancing. The simulation sees dots in three colours interacting with each other in certain spaces, charting the changes from good health to infection to treatment, or healthy to sick to recovered. Some simulations, like this one, do not track the progress but do provide perspective on the ripple effect of not socially distancing oneself.

A highly-recommended interactive visual map is that by the folks at HERE Technologies, who have created a detailed and interactive map of the progressing situation, including the total number of confirmed cases, as well as deaths and recoveries.

As Shriphani suggested, Johns Hopkins University’s dataset on GitHub was the chosen source. The details are also minute in that you can explore these numbers by country, and in the case of China, by province.

There is also an app version, according to a blog post dated February 26, which details the development journey of the creation of the interactive map. “Working with live data from different data sources during an evolving virus outbreak meant that we had to adapt and be flexible regarding data collection and processing,” writes Richard Zimmerman.

He adds, “For the [design of] the map itself we opted for Leaflet and Tangram, powered by the HERE Data Hub and HERE Vector Tile API. To allow users to search for specific places, we used the HERE Geolocation Autocomplete API.” This map features a time slider which helps those who want to know the full path of the virus since day one.

A screenshot of Here Technologies’ interactive map (desktop interface). The screenshot was taken on the evening of March 14

A screenshot of Here Technologies’ interactive map (desktop interface). The screenshot was taken on the evening of March 14  

“To provide more frequent data updates for the situation in China, we decided to source data directly from the DXY website every 60 minutes. This process is automated, and the data is merged with what is published by JHU about once a day, and all of this is pushed to the HERE Data Hub to be consumed by our app.”

The visualisation, though, is what makes the data accessible, when there are so many numbers floating around the public sphere.

The data imagery make big and small data easier for the human brain to understand, and visualisation also makes it easier to detect patterns, trends, and outliers in groups of data.

“Our map displays data as scaled bubbles, indicating confirmed cases as absolute numbers, rather than normalised values in relation to the population of the place. With absolute counts, choropleth maps are generally not a good option [as it] would have also made it difficult to display data from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, requiring a custom solution for that data point. We opted for a linear scale to show an accurate relationship of the absolute numbers on a global scale.”

Unfortunately, the HERE Technologies visualisation is lacking a few more datasets from international medical institutes which could provide case population data for India by state and city.

A screenshot of Windy App’s interactive line graph (desktop interface). The screenshot was taken on the evening of March 14

A screenshot of Windy App’s interactive line graph (desktop interface). The screenshot was taken on the evening of March 14  

Another potential data visualisation is by the Prague-based Windy App. Probably the more interesting infographic is the line graph, where three sets of data are shown in three distinctly-coloured lines: Total, Recovered and Deaths, as per OpenStreetMap networks’ datasets.

Some may glance at the line graph and point out a somewhat positive correlation which is indicated as more resources are pumped into the medical industry for treatment and isolation. This map does not show cases by location nor by age group so this is for those who want a quick overview.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 8:05:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/data-artists-and-app-developers-offer-new-ways-of-tracking-the-path-of-the-coronavirus/article31082534.ece

Next Story