Covid-19 is teaching India to use maps to battle the next pandemic

Keep it in check.
Keep it in check.
Image: AP Photo/Ajit Solanki
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India’s healthcare system has spiralled into total chaos following the Covid-19 outbreak.

With over 1.5 million cases reported in the country, patients have reportedly struggled with a shortage of beds, ventilators, and other medical resources. While public hospital data is available in the government’s 2019 National Health Profile (NHP), tracking down private resources is much harder.

These challenges can be tackled effectively with the use of maps.

In the past, various government departments, including education, forestry, and disaster management have used geographic information systems (GIS) to map out demographics and asses information to handle calamities and crises. In the private sector, retail store chains and banks use maps frequently to decide the locations of their new branches.

However, in the healthcare space, India is still just scratching the surface when it comes to using GIS and mapping to its advantage. Except for malaria risk assessments in certain regions, mapping has barely been used to track the spread of diseases and make predictions to curtail them in India.

“Earlier, GIS has been used by (the) health department for mostly malaria and things like this but not at this scale. This scale is unbelievable,” said Agendra Kumar, president of Esri, an international supplier of GIS software.

Existing tech

California-based Esri has been working with Indian officials to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak in recent months. Esri has set up online hubs for healthcare departments of various state governments in India, integrating maps with data from different healthcare facilities, captive centres, and containment zones, among other things. It publishes them on an easy-to-use dashboard for authorities.

“One of the major challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it is swelling in pockets and identifying and understanding locations and demographics is critical,”  said Arvind Sharma, partner at law firm Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co. “GIS (technology) uses sophisticated analytical tools and provides reliable data regarding the spread and impact of the disease, and the outcome of efforts to tackle the same.”

In March, the Gujarat government launched a GIS-based mobile application to monitor the movement of those advised to be home-quarantined. Local authorities in Mumbai have been publishing GIS data online so residents can track cases in their areas and maintain caution.

GIS can also be used to better manage large Covid-19 facilities and access real-time information on the availability of beds and ventilators.

“If you’re setting up large health facilities, we can do indoor mapping quite quickly in a matter of few days,” said Kumar. “It becomes easier. Staff doesn’t have to go around physically looking for a stretcher or beds then, for instance.”

However, since the adoption of GIS in the healthcare sector has remained low, the struggles are apparent.

Still learning

Esri, which has been servicing Indian state and private players for over two decades, found that health department officials in the country weren’t too tech savvy. So, out of Esri’s 400 Indian employees, nearly 70 were helping government officials learn the ropes.

During the pandemic, the government also ensured some internal hand-holding. For instance, authorities from the disaster management side, who use the technology not only to monitor tides daily but also to assess cyclones, storms, and floods, stepped in to help educate their peers in healthcare.

The learning curve is still steep as cases keep on rising. But Covid-19-related tech is laying the groundwork for handling future diseases. Research shows India has a high potential for emerging zoonotic diseases and continues to face significant mortality from pneumonia and diarrhea.

“This is a good lesson that, at any point in time, health department should have a database,” said Kumar. “They have a database of hospitals but sometimes they don’t know what are the assets in every hospital: how many beds, how many ICU beds, how many ventilators, what are the facilities? With the right information, it’ll become very easy for health departments to build out infrastructure which can support Covid-19 or any other disease.”

But the technology has its drawbacks if not used properly. For instance, some concerns around privacy, security, and bias have come up with the surveillance it enables. “Authorising unregulated surveillance might lead to data discrimination in which marginalised community (sic) could be further excluded due to non-transparent algorithmic processes,” Kazim Rizvi, founding director of tech and public policy think-tank The Dialogue, told IndiaSpend.

And deployment won’t be all that easy. Highly-priced software and their non-availability at multiple locations are impediments, as are lack of micro-level data and shortage of trained personnel.