Whether it’s an address search on your smartphone, the base map on a website, a satellite image or the maps you see on TV, geospatial technology is all around us. It predicts the weather, handles traffic, routes 911 calls, delivers Amazon packages, connects you to Uber, manages natural disasters, guides aircraft, predicts voter behavior, identifies target markets, values real estate and on and on.
The U.S. Department of Labor deemed geospatial technology, along with nanotechnology and biomedical technologies, the most important technologies of the 21st century. Facebook, Instagram, Apple, Google and just about every tech company and app you can think of uses geospatial technologies. They take all of the data they collect about you and attach it to where you are and where you spend most of your time (home, work, favorite shopping, eating and recreation locations — even the virtual places you inhabit online). They then connect you with the people you interact with most often and compare that data. Rights of privacy notwithstanding, the business of knowing what you’re like and where you are is indeed very big business.
Recently, geospatial technology’s great power has been applied to tracking, understanding and predicting the global pandemic of COVID-19. Because coronavirus is largely transmitted person-to-person, it’s essential to know where people have been, with whom they’ve been in contact and then where they’ve gone. In short, geospatial technology is used to “map” the diffusion of the coronavirus while gathering a tremendous amount of data about its victims (age, gender, ethnicity, living arrangements, underlying health conditions and, especially, location).
This “big data” is then spatially analyzed to look for patterns, hot spots, change and, eventually, to make predictions. Armed with this analysis, experts at all levels, from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Utah Department of Health and local medical professionals, make recommendations and policy.
Ultimately, to prevail in our rush to slow the spread of COVID-19, we have to know where and when people became infected, where they went, who they came in contact with and where those people went. It’s all a matter of geography because the “where” is so important. Epidemiology is, at its foundation, about the where of disease and health and the factors that influence those distributions. Despite sound warnings from epidemiologists (and a lot of entertaining books and movies), we largely ignored the possibility of a global pandemic, and we certainly weren’t prepared for one.
In addition to the arrogance, science illiteracy, fierce individualism and money worship displayed by too many government and business leaders and by everyday Americans, we largely botched the response to COVID-19 in this country because we refused to accept the reality that we are part of an interdependent national and global community.
Instead, we left it up to individual states and cities, as if we had no contact with one another. The solutions to global challenges like climate change, refugees, poverty, terrorism, racism, resource shortages, extinction and, indeed, pandemics are not crafted separate from the world we live in. Hurricanes, famines, intolerance, oppression and viruses don’t care about national and state borders. They don’t care if there is a border wall or a tariff or an authoritarian government. It’s all one planet to them.
It’s fine to act locally, but global problems demand global solutions. You may find comfort in the fact that your neighborhood or community is fine, but it’s a temporary security. Our world has never been so interconnected and interdependent. Sooner or later, whatever happens halfway around the world will affect us locally. Just have a look at the tags in your clothing, the “made in” decals on your electronics or where your food comes from. We are as far from local subsistence as ever in human history. The truth is, we need to cooperate with the rest of the world more than ever, but we act like their well-being doesn’t matter.
Fortunately, an army of globally, environmentally and socially minded people has stepped into the void that is a fragmented response to worldwide challenges. Geographers, environmental scientists, sustainability experts, medical professionals, planners, public administrators and community activists have brought their experience and fearless passion to bear on really tackling the world’s largest challenges.
At the Huntsman Center and the University of Utah for example, researchers have built a web-mapping portal to track health and disease and have used spatial analysis to monitor viral load in wastewater. COVID-19 has only accelerated the disruption that was sweeping the world’s economies, institutions and politics. Doing what we have always done is not sustainable — not locally, not globally, not ever. For many looking to honestly embrace these international challenges, geospatial technologies comprise the biggest tool in their toolbox. For the world’s sake, let’s hope they get the chance to use them.