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How location intelligence can help governments manage their response to COVID-19

ML: Hi, and thanks for tuning in to Location Intelligence on HxGN Radio. I’m your host, Matt Langan. The devastating scale of effects of the COVID-19 global pandemic are like nothing we’ve seen in modern history, but unlike the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, we live in an era where data and the technologies to leverage that data are ubiquitous. This provides governments and citizens with better information than ever before. It also equips them with tools to better respond to the challenges created by COVID-19. In this episode, I’m talking to Christoph De Preter, who is the Chief Sales Officer of Hexagon’s Geospatial division, about how location intelligence and geospatial technologies are being used to better understand, monitor and navigate the daily challenges during this global health crisis. Christoph, welcome to the show and thank you for joining us today.

CDP: Hi Matt, pleasure to be here.

ML: Excellent. Well, let’s jump right in. So, it seems like one of the most visible applications of geospatial technology to COVID-19 are the public maps and dashboards that have been used to visualise the spread of the virus. Why is that and why is this significant?

CDP: Yeah, well the rise of these dashboards really shows the thirst for information. Not just from you and me from the public, but also from decision makers. If you look at the media, researchers, politicians, government officials, they all want and need high level data and they need that to interpret the spread of COVID-19 and to understand it. That’s really what led to dashboarding solutions. And those demonstrate the usefulness of location information. Sure, you can present your data in a spreadsheet or in a BI tool, but putting it on a map and visualising the data in different ways has so much more power. Showing clusters of illnesses by region, for instance. Or correlating illness data against the size of a country or it’s demography or its total population, all of that makes it so much more understandable. So, I guess that the whole rise of these dashboarding public maps really shows that map paints a thousand words. That’s really what it comes down to. Now, that said, you have many many dashboards that are around. Some of them are good, because they’re interactive, the widgets automatically update when you zoom in on a region or you filter on a data point. Those are really a pleasure to work with, but others are not so good. They’re slow, they’re not responsive or they’re impractical to use. So, really the way that you implement at the dashboard is very important.

ML: That’s great. That plays perfectly into my next question because it certainly sounds like usability is very important and it’s not just about having a nice visualisation, so you’ve talked about this a little bit but let’s dive in a little more. So, what really makes a good dashboard?

CDP: So, yeah, as you said it’s all about usability. It’s not just about having a pretty picture. It’s not just about the visualisation but it’s really about giving people a tool that they can do data analytics with. By location and over time. So, important capabilities that you’re going to see users look for is that they want a dashboard that’s dynamic, not static. One that allows easy filtering through time, with a time slider for instance or even with a play button where they can replay and fast forward how a situation evolved over time. And then, typical for a dashboard is that you have many different windows, many different widgets and data elements. And those have to be very nicely correlated so that when you zoom in on a specific widget or you click on a specific filter, everything in the dashboard immediately updates and you don’t have to wait for a couple of seconds before you get a comprehensive picture. And all of that actually underpins the need for seamless updates because if you have old data that you have to crunch and process before you get updates, that’s really not useful, right? Now, behind all of those user requirements, they are easy to pronounce, right, to say that those things are important, but behind that there’s of course a lot of technical elements and a lot of technical hard work that goes into it. And actually, that’s the kind of stuff that we at Hexagon focus on a lot in our geospatial technologies. I’m not going to go into too much technical detail on this point, but in sum, what it comes down to is that you don’t just need an online map, you really need an app. An application. With logics and intelligence inside that allows you to go above and beyond just looking at a static map picture. So, we’ve done a couple of things at Hexagon. We’ve created different mapping apps. We call them Smart M.Apps that have all those elements of being dynamic, easy to filter through time, correlation, etc. For instance, with M.AppEnterprise, we actually have an online application that people can look at that looks at the COVID-19 spread. But also, previously, for instance with our Luciad technology, we’ve helped world renowned virology departments to analyse and visualise the spread of hepatitis. Currently we’re also working in Germany with healthcare professionals. Apps to analyse the pressure on intensive care units in hospitals across Germany. And in France, for instance, a year ago we we’re tasked by a health insurance industry to build an app to track and corollate pollution data and match that against prescriptions for respiratory illness, allergies. And they were actually able to really quantify the cost of pollution to the health system. So, that’s the kind of stuff that we’re looking at.

ML: That’s great. Those are excellent examples there, Christoph. Overall geospatial technologies have actually long been used as part of disaster and emergency management. So, beyond dashboards, what are some other ways these technologies could be applied to today’s COVID-19 situation?

CDP: I love the question because indeed there’s so much more to life than just dashboards, right? So, if you look today at many of the issues that dominate the news or public policy discussions, it’s very often around two things. One, location. The question of where. And then all of the information related to the location. Information about government, business or citizens that can be tied to location. So, it’s about enforcing social distancing. It’s about knowing where to buy critical supplies because you don’t want to wonder around town needlessly in search of a specific supply that increases the risk of the virus spread. If you exactly know where to get your supplies, that’s safer and more efficient. It’s about knowing the location of individuals that are vulnerable or in need of help. There’s a location intelligence factor to all of those examples and you see in all of those examples it’s not about a dashboard, it’s about using location technology to make our lives safer, to make our operations as a government, as a public service, more efficient. I can give you a couple of examples if we have the time. One example is the city of Almada, Portugal. It’s basically a city on the other side of the river across Lisbon. And they’re using M.App Enterprise to connect retailers and citizens in order to offer and sell critical supplies. Because what the Almada officials saw was that opening times of shops and available supplies on Google or the traditional websites, they weren’t up to date during the COVID crisis. And lo and behold what did you have as a consequence? You had people wondering around town looking where to buy flour or toilet paper or other supplies. And that actually increased the likelihood of the virus spread. You don’t want people wondering around town if it’s not absolutely necessary. So, under the stewardship of the city, we actually implemented a M.App Enterprise application that offers an authoritative source of information where citizens can go look, where and when they can go to buy which supplies, and the local shop owners actually feed that application. So that’s a really cool way of using location technology to just make our lives safer and more easy. Another example is Mobile Alert. That’s currently in use in Poland and also in two Southeast Asian countries that I’m not at liberty to disclose. But in all of those three countries Mobile Alert is used by citizens with a free app to flag to local or national government, issues that they spot that can be potential health hazards related to COVID-19. For instance, gatherings of people that are not allowed under the applicable rules or maybe people that spot vulnerable individuals that need help for doing their grocery shopping, etc. So, you see there that location intelligence combined with the benefit of crowd sourcing really brings a lot of value to us in these difficult times. And it’s not just about COVID-19. You can use this kind of technology in any type of crisis situation. A couple of years ago there were terrorist attacks on the airport of Brussels and also the Brussels subway and Hexagon, with its Luciad technology, actually worked together with local mobile operators to model people flow and to model how both phone traffic and people flows developed in the aftermath of those unfortunate events and then it helped crisis planers to better prepare for the next crisis. So those are all examples of how location intelligence helps us above and beyond the conventional dashboard.

ML: That’s great. Thanks for those insights there, Christoph, and we’re certainly living through some very unprecedented times right now, all of us. I imagine Hexagon’s customers are also impacted by the quarantines and social distancing, even if many of them are considered essential services, so, how are they dealing with the situation right now?

CDP: Yeah, great point. Of course, our thoughts first go to all the victims of this crisis, but indeed let’s not forget all the heroes. The people that work at first responder organisations. Ambulances, hospitals, people in the army or in the police. Many of those are our customers and they’re doing a tremendous job nowadays. But even beyond that, the vast majority of all of us geospatial professionals, we’re perfectly healthy but we’re stuck at home. And yet we have business to do. Business moves on for me at Hexagon, certainly for my customers and contacts and partners. And yet, as you say, many of them are doing work that is quite essential to society, so to help them out we’ve started a host of initiatives. One is that we’ve moved not to cancel our trainings, but to move all of our trainings online. So that’s great for users, developers, that want to work with or on top of our technology. They’re now stuck at home and they can really use the time in an efficient way and get trained and get smart on our technologies from the safety of their home. We’ve also arranged for homeworking licences for our Power Portfolio customers so we have a lot of local governments and municipalities that are relying on our technology for cadastre, town planning and all of those types of activities. And we offer to them, free of charge, to use home office licences that they can get through our customer services so that they can continue doing their work. We’re also organising a lot of webinars, virtual events to continue to educate the audience on how geospatial technology can help them in their response to COVID-19, obviously, but also in their regular business. And it’s a bit too early but I can already give you a sneak preview that we’re also working on an initiative for the software developer community out there to make sure that also all of those developers worldwide that are wanting to build the next great, that we can help them very soon to get started on their work even though they’re stuck at home.

ML: That’s great. Thank you so much and, Christoph, this has been a wonderful podcast and a lot of great insights and a lot of great timely insights considering what’s going on in the world right now and, before we sign off, are there any closing thoughts or ideas you’d like to share with the audience? Any key takeaways they should think about from this conversation?

CDP: Yeah. Well generally I think that the whole COVID-19 crisis will have lasting impact on the way we behave. This is in many ways a big social experiment. Look for instance at what this has done to getting people used to do homeworking and teleconferencing, rather than meeting physically. I think that that’s going to be something to stay for a very long time. The same with home schooling with kids having to learn online. Again, we’re being a part now of the biggest social experiment ever, in a way, right? But in our geospatial industry I think the COVID-19 crisis has also shown us something. It’s the big need to move from maps to apps. The conventional map or conventional GIS system, it focuses on the where question, right? You have a map and it shows you a place on a map so you know where it’s happening. That’s what traditional maps do. But what COVID-19 shows us is how important it is to not just know where but also how, when, why, right? We need to find correlations, evolutions, cause and effect. So, for us location intelligence professionals, I think one of the key takeaways is that we have to make the move from static GIS that contains maps to really interactive applications, to map apps, and that’s what we call the Hexagon Smart M.Apps. So, for me, those are the key takeaways.

ML: That’s great. I’d like to say a big thank you to Christoph de Preter. We look forward to having you back on the podcast. And thank you for tuning in to Location Intelligence on HxGN Radio. For more great stories and podcasts, please visit HxGNSpotlight.com.