Back to the May-Jun 2020 issue

Using Open Data to Track the Coronavirus

By Melissa Reeder

Can you imagine a website that gets more than a billion hits a day? That website has a dashboard of the coro­navirus (COVID-19) GIS map and is posted by Johns Hopkins University. It seems the pandemic is creating one of those instances where we all feel lives suddenly depend on technology.

The world’s attention is on track­ing COVID-19. One of the best ways to follow its progression is with open data, which allows for sharing infor­mation freely and using software to visualize it.

Map built by shared data

The Johns Hopkins dashboard pro­vides a real-time visualization of the outbreak around the world and in the U.S. By using GIS software, Johns Hopkins includes a map, as well as the total number of COVID-19 cases, deaths, and recoveries. The numbers are also broken down by the cases in each country. To see the dashboard, visit

COVID-19 website dashboard, Johns Hopkins University
The Johns Hopkins dashboard provides a real-time visualization of the outbreak around the world and in the U.S.

The data sources for the Johns Hopkins dashboard were freely shared by the World Health Organi­zation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and others.

Johns Hopkins is also sharing its dashboard with others. For example, the state of Minnesota has incorpo­rated the Johns Hopkins dashboard into the state COVID-19 Public Dash­board, launched on April 9.

Layers that reveal trends

GIS programs like Johns Hopkins are connecting information stored in a computer database to points on a map. The information is displayed in “layers,” with each layer laid over the preceding ones, like transparent sheets on an overhead projector. The layered maps can reveal trends or patterns that might be missed if presented in a spreadsheet or list.

Of course, there is nothing new about reading a map. What is new, however, is the ability to layer infor­mation on a map and then peel away truths that may have been thought to be unrelated.

While the map may be interesting to follow for you and me, the CDC and other government agencies are using the vast data behind that map. They are using data analytics and machine learning to track the out­break, predict its spread, and plan for the resources that will be needed.

Preparation through ‘machine learning’

Machine learning is a scientific study of algorithms and statistical models that computer systems use to per­form tasks. In other words, machine learning can help people learn from past events and then quickly produce a model to understand and prepare for the next event.

For example, agencies can monitor confirmed cases of COVID-19 from where people traveled and then pre­dict possible outcomes. In the case of COVID-19, having the most accu­rate predictions can mean resources like doctors, equipment, and supplies are sent ahead of the need.

Critical role of cities

These dashboards are less effective if there are missing street addresses or if other important information used in building a map is lacking. Much of that critical information is provided by cities. That’s why — whether it’s the next fire, flood, tornado, or pandemic — cities have a vital part in providing open data to build a good GIS map.

Read related article: The Benefits of Open City Data

Melissa Reeder is chief information officer with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 281-1221.