As many of us mark two months of “working through COVID” we can reflect on the journey so far – what’s worked, lessons learned, and how we can best navigate our way forward.

GIS emerged early as a mission-critical tool, vital to supporting the first pandemic we’ve been able to analyze in real-time using modern location technology. Location technology has enabled the public to stay informed, leaders to make decisions, and communities to collaborate for the greater good. Pro-West has spent the past two months serving organizations with COVID-19 response solutions and services to inform, support and protect their communities.

But the role of GIS in the COVID-19 crisis won’t end when the pandemic relents. Organizations can and will use location technology to continue to promote community resilience, safety and to move and scale through COVID. The pandemic has exposed the need and expectation for GIS-based solutions among society: collectively, we are recognizing that many more people than previously understood need and expect answers that can only be provided using location technology.

Two months in, here are some lessons learned in relation to location technology that will far outlast the pandemic.

Use GIS to communicate with the public

Location technology offers the unique ability for citizens and decision makers to efficiently communicate and establish a shared understanding while limiting in-person contact.

If an organization has no or minimal online presence and/or no engagement strategy, one must be created to help answer the following questions:

  1. How will we (city/county) connect with the public when they cannot engage in person?
  2. How do we enable the general public to share information with us if they aren’t coming into our offices?
  3. How do we rapidly produce valuable and actionable content for the public and our staff?
  4. If a citizen does come to the office, how do we use technology to minimize exposure and still gain valuable information?
Reduce exposure through modernized data collection methods

During a public health crisis, location technology enables vital information and assets to be collected in a way that is easy, scalable and trackable without the risks associated with physical contact.

Take advantage of GIS for rapid deployment

Take advantage of GIS applications that are built to be deployed “off-the-shelf”, allowing solutions and information to be deployed rapidly in a continually changing environment. GIS allows organizations to share trustworthy, up-to-date information that can be easily accessed and understood. ArcGIS Hub is a great example of a GIS tool that offers these benefits and has been widely deployed during the pandemic, allowing for information to be shared and feedback collected from the public without the need for contact.

Create an arsenal of core solutions that supports multiple formats

Location technology is much more than maps. Use GIS to support and share content in many different forms including videos, images, dashboard, maps and documents – almost any resource with which the public may need to engage. All of these can be gathered and accessed from a single location using GIS.

Visualize risk and response

Organizations can take proactive steps to create an instant picture of areas of risk and capacity to respond. When these are needed, there is no available or convenient time to create them from scratch. Some suggestions include:

  1. Maintain data that represents the locations of vulnerable populations
  2. Maintain data that represents community and public safety assets such as response facilities, medical resources, equipment, goods and services, and public facilities
  3. Identify data and maintenance processes needed for areas near or in mutual aid jurisdictions
  4. Share interactive maps designed to communicate the public safety and emergency response landscape in your community
Understand data and privacy policy requirements and practices

Organizations that are not familiar with data and privacy policies will be unable to respond at speed when solutions are needed, but the good news is this lack of familiarity is a setback that can be avoided.

Understanding policies can be daunting. For some organizations, the fear of making mistakes or an unwillingness to invest effort in understanding policies can prevent them from engaging with solutions.

Don’t let understanding policies be a barrier. Seek to understand what you can do and what you can’t.

Elevate the status of geographic information in the organization

If there’s one thing the COVID pandemic has taught us, it’s that location is everything. Geography is crucial to explain and help solve problems, and organizations are increasingly relying on geographic information to make critical decisions and share first hand knowledge.

What practical steps can we take to elevate the importance of geographic information?

Communication is key. Technical staff need to put significant effort into communicating about GIS with non-experts, and bridge knowledge gaps to connect specialized professional discussions to practical needs. Focus on the value and benefits that will result from the technical solution. Take a holistic approach that looks at the bigger picture: we live in a connected world where exploring and understanding those connections and how to respond is critical.