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  • Writer's pictureAyeisha Sheldon

What is Geospatial Data? In the era of COVID-19 and Uber Eats

So, perspective - today is the 11/04/2020.

Let me take you back in time a little. Two months ago this thing called 'Coronavirus (COVID-19)' was rapidly emerging from China and seemed to be spreading around Asia, but people didn't seem very fearful, they didn't seem too panicked. Australia was finally recovering from our catastrophic summer of bushfires, which somehow now feels like 'years' even 'lifetimes' ago and we only had 15 known cases of this new disease, now turned ugly pandemic.

On the 12/02/2020 my mum emailed me a link to this 'online dashboard' developed by Johns Hopkins University which was tracking the outbreak and the cases of the COVID-19 disease. This screenshot below was taken on the 29/02/2020 and today (11/04/2020) the world has over 1.7 million recorded COVID-19 cases. What really promoted this blog, surprisingly this has not been written out of sheer boredom, was the huge role that geospatial data is playing as millions of people around the world are turning to spatial data science to gain information and further understand this crisis. Geospatial data has for years been playing huge roles in data-driven analysis and decision making, but I feel now has really taken a front-row seat.

"Hundreds of thousands of organizations in virtually every field are using GIS to make maps that communicate, perform analysis, share information, and solve complex problems around the world. This is changing the way the world works".*

"A puzzled look" or an "Ahh mm" is usually what I get when I tell people I study or work in Geospatial Science, Spatial Data or GIS (Geographical Information Systems). Most people get confused with GPS (navigation), geology, something to do with 'space' or rockets or generally have no idea - which I find ironic since most people around the world use geospatial services daily. Even during this global pandemic, where most people are staying home and not even leaving their house, geospatial data science is on the rise and is being utilised for various applications. In this sense, I thought it would be interesting to explain geospatial data science in relation to COVID-19 (because let's face it, who doesn't love talking about COVID-19, it's all anyone is really doing).

Geospatial services, stemming from space applications and geospatial data, are defined as services provided by geographic components, such as data and information. These services have a significant impact on all aspects of everyday life and were recognised at the 2018 United Nations World Geospatial Information Congress for their utility in service of social, economic and environmental development. *

Through geospatial data, the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard is playing a vital role to share data and information for everyday people to gain updates into this crisis and they are not the only ones. ESRI the company that has developed the software behind this web application used in this example has been working with a number of stakeholders to utilise geospatial data platforms to display and share COVID-19 data. The World Health Organisation (WHO) along with Google (and numerous other platforms) have also launched geospatial dashboards tracking the spread of COVID-19.

WHO Coronavirus Dashboard (Screenshot 11/04/2020)

Whenever you use any type of location data in your everyday life chances are this is spatial data. I guarantee almost everyone has used Google Maps, this is by far the most used GIS application in the world. Looking for your closest 'coffee' shop? Directions to your friend's house? You use Apple or Google Maps, this is a geospatial data mapping application. Ordering food delivery? Uber Eats? This is another spatial data mapping application. Uploading georeferenced photos to Facebook or Instagram? Yep, geospatial data.

A more technical definition

There are over 2,000 active satellites in space orbiting the Earth, all of these satellites communicate via radio signals to a receiver station located on the ground. Not all of these satellites are the same, some form telecommunication and navigation infrastructure, which allow us to communicate to one and other (internet, phone, radio etc.), these also help us pinpoint our location on earth (GPS/ GNSS). Some of these satellites are Earth Observation satellites, which are essentially cameras with multiple sensors orbiting the earth capturing high-resolution imagery, this is how the 'Satellite' base map is formed in Google Maps.

By analysing remotely sensed imagery, either manually or automatically (using AI and machine learning), real-life objects on Earth can be digitized as spatial features such as points, lines and polygons, these become things such as roads, houses, points of interests etc. This essentially creates a digital layer of features on the Earth. This is the 'Default' layer on Google Maps, it has been digitized from satellite imagery and then other information and attributes have been tied to this data to create a full dataset.

Geospatial data is the powerful decision-making tool that can be used across any industry that wants to analyse location data.

Geospatial Science combines all of this data and information to understand people, places, and processes of the earth. It provides a really freaking cool tool to use in pretty much any type of situation. From complex engineering problems to town-planning, disaster response, environmental management, your Uber-Eats application to the COVID-19 Dashboard, these are all using geospatial data in some way or another. Resulting in most people, knowingly or most-likely unknowingly, utilising some type of geospatial service in their everyday life.


My type of geospatial science

In this regard, if you haven't already realised geospatial data is very VERY broad. It can be pretty much used in any context to analyse and display geospatial data patterns. I know spatial analysts working in banks, town-planning firms, engineer consultancies, Government Agencies, NGOs - the list goes on. With the rapid development of technology and spatial services, the world is literally your oyster when it comes to geospatial data.

For me personally, I am interested in demographic geospatial science. I like to use geospatial data to provide solutions and outcomes to help solve real-world problems. These are things such as social issues (gender issues, human migration and movement), environmental issues (climate change, climate adaptation) and development (building capacity and providing decision-makers with relevant data).

At the moment I am in my final year of my Masters in Geospatial Science at RMIT, Melbourne. I am attempting to undertake my thesis in social development issues within the Pacific Islands, but under the current circumstances have been running into a few problems! Anyways, hope you found some valued insight into my field and learnt something new - thanks for reading!

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