Millions across the world are in a never-ending search for more information about the coronavirus pandemic to know whether it has hit their county, state or country and to gain a better understanding of the global response. In an effort to help the public, governments and first responders, dozens of universities and scientific institutes have created digital maps illustrating the spread of the virus using officially sourced data. These maps have become wildly popular among the general public and among government officials, who now use them to track just how hard hit their communities are by COVID-19.

The most popular map was created early on in the crisis by Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, featuring detailed figures on each country’s growing coronavirus case count. But dozens of others have been designed to provide different perspectives on data around the global crisis.

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University of Virginia coronavirus map
Image: University of Virginia

Dawen Xie, the lead developer behind the University of Virginia’s COVID-19 dashboard, said its goal was to help people deal with the coronavirus pandemic through historical data and up-to-date figures.

“People are scared. I’m scared as well. We really want to help people get the answers they need. We try to answer the top four questions people typically have. How many cases? How many deaths? How many people recovered? Where does it happen? What about my county, community or state? How did we get here?” said Xie, who works as a research scientist for the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute & Initiative.

“Even though the whole ordeal is less than three months old, when we look back, how did we get to this point? We try to answer these questions with our dashboards. We try to make answers to all these questions available within one click. We want to give people all the information they need.”

Xie said he started work on the dashboard in late January, a couple of days after he saw the map from Johns Hopkins University. The first version was released on Feb. 2 and since then his team has expanded it while also starting work on other maps that may show other data and statistics related to the global response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since January, universities in Minnesota, Massachusetts, and other states have released maps or dashboards in addition to other tools from the CDC, WHO and healthcare organizations like Boston Children’s Hospital.

“For me, I’m a first-generation Chinese immigrant, so I have a lot of personal contacts in China. When the first thing happened at the time, there was only one dashboard available, the Johns Hopkins dashboard. So I thought about the way we could address this in different ways. I feel it’s very important to use a map to represent each area instead of points. More importantly, it’s very important to be able to see all the historical data,” Xie said.

A screenshot of HealthMap.
Image: HealthMap

Lauren Goodwin, MPH Project Coordinator with the HealthMap Computational Epidemiology Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, said the lab helped create HealthMap in 2006, using non-traditional data sources such as news and social media to track infectious disease outbreaks.

Staff used machine learning tools to scour the internet for infectious disease-related articles in more than 20 languages across the globe, pulling in in new articles every day looking for potential disease outbreaks or information about outbreaks.

“Our system, HealthMap, was alerted to this unknown viral pneumonia and it pulled in an article as early as December 30. We had that article pulled in, but obviously none of us knew how big this would be. Once the cases really started coming through we created a map in mid-January using strictly news-related articles about coronavirus. That shifted to the map everyone sees today,” Goodwin said.

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“That map shifted us into tracking case reports because in a time of such an outbreak, having accurate case information is really important so we’ve shifted and maintain two maps, one is strictly articles, social media news and media based accounts, updates and how people are treating it versus the map used with the case count.”

Even people outside of the healthcare or research fields have gotten in on the map-making game. Bart Wilson, CEO and co-founder of Colorado-based tech company VPiX, created his own popular geographic coronavirus map through Bing. The site provides the number of infections, deaths and recoveries in every region or country.

Wilson said he linked the Bing map to a database that has accurate information from the WHO and the CDC.

“A lot of people just simply didn’t know where to go to get the accurate information. We went out and found a whole bunch of sites that had somewhat accurate information so we went and found a very good source for that and then we found a great source through Bing and we linked the data up,” Wilson said.

“I’m an active member of my community in Colorado. What I decided to do was help my fellow people understand that the virus is scary and show the real numbers. I wanted to show that it’s getting a lot better in China. China has had two months going through this. They’re on the decline but now it’s our turn.”

The Coronavirus map made by Bartley Wilson.
Image: Bartley Wilson

His site has thousands of hits now and he has gotten hundreds of messages from people thanking him for creating the map.

Where the data comes from

One of the many problems the makers of these dashboards have is getting accurate data, especially from certain regions of the world that have been slow to adopt widespread coronavirus testing.

The numbers being used by most dashboards and maps can at times be a bit skewed because of the differing availability of coronavirus testing kits or laboratories, which has been a persistent problem in the United States and many other countries. Many of the numbers used for maps or dashboards have come from the CDC or WHO, which are updated frequently.

“I wanted something accurate and something that I could easily share. And that wasn’t just from one source. The nice thing about this map is we’re getting data homogenized from WHO and from the CDC,” Wilson said.

Xie noted one of the main things he wanted to focus on with his map was accurate data that was consistent, easily discoverable and continuously updated.

According to Xie, the team curates data from different sources and to ensure the accuracy of the information, they have one person on the team dedicated specifically to integrating numbers from other sources to make sure everything is correct.

Whenever there are discrepancies, the team checks multiple sources to confirm. Much of the data for the United States and Canada comes from

Because of testing volatility, the University of Virginia has different levels of data for each country. For the United States, its map supports data down to the county level and for 10 other countries team members can track the numbers to a province or state level. But most countries only give national figures, so they typically use those numbers.

One of the key focuses of their dashboard, according to Xie, was that the data be easily searchable, so its dashboard includes a function that provides multiple ways for users to search or sort their information. With one or two clicks users can get detailed information on countries or regions and there is even a function that allows people to download the data.

He added that a cool feature the team added was the ability to go back in time and see how the data changed over the past few months. Users can track cases by region or by time period. Using a video-like feature, you can scroll through the changing infection numbers over time and with a slider, you can scroll through dates like a movie. The team built the slider and other more advanced features of the dashboard using javascript.

Goodwin said her team’s map is a bit different in that it’s populated by a manually curated line list.

“In most outbreak situations, there’s not a singular source for world leaders. There’s not a singular source that provides details about the cases. Most use aggregated case numbers,” she said.

“Our team and global teams of volunteers created an open line list where each line represents a single coronavirus case. We’re working on a curated thing where if we know a person’s age or steps or travel history, we are creating our map based on that information. Rather than just aggregated results, our map is giving detailed information about each confirmed case.”

Surprises gleaned from the data

Xie, Wilson and Goodwin all had different takeaways from their work making coronavirus maps.
Goodwin said it has been good seeing the scientific community come together to help fight the virus. The amount of outreach and people who want to contribute their time outside of work has been heartening, she added.

But one of the biggest things she learned in working on the Boston Children’s Hospital map is that there is a major struggle with the coronavirus and the lack of testing availability in many parts of the United States and world.

“It’s spreading quickly but we still don’t have an accurate number because of the availability of tests and people who have the virus and are asymptomatic. That’s something that has been startling to us especially as it’s grown. Just seeing how quickly it spread across the globe,” Goodwin said.

For Wilson, the improving numbers from China made him feel more at ease about how the virus will play out in the United States and he said he hoped more people would look at how other countries have responded to the crisis. It was natural that people were scared, he added, but in his view there should be more of a sense of calm now that China has largely won its battle against the virus.

Xie and Madhav Marathe, director of the Network Systems Science and Advanced Computing Division and University of Virginia professor of Computer Science, said its dashboard had been viewed millions of times and they had already worked with some state agencies on illustrating how social distancing as well as other efforts had shown noticable effects in stopping the virus.

The team is already hard at work on other tools that will help states and federal agencies better understand the toll on healthcare systems as well as what efforts need to be taken to address the crisis.

But Xie added that one of the biggest things that surprised, and terrified him as he pored through the data was the second wave that hit around March 4.

“One thing that caught me by surprise was the second wave. Around March 4, the numbers started to grow exponentially. It’s when Korea, Italy, Iran and other countries were hit harder and now the US had more cases as well. The whole world increased exponentially,” Xie said.

“To be honest, I’m a little bit worried there is the potential for a third wave. I really hope I am wrong, but this is something that keeps me up at night.”

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto