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Boston Turns to Data Analytics to Track COVID-19 for Residents

The city has launched a number of data-enabled digital applications over the past few weeks as a way of keeping residents up to date about the public health crisis occurring throughout the state.

Shutterstock/Christopher Boswell
Boston has launched two new data platforms to keep residents up to date on the COVID-19 public health crisis in both the city and across Massachusetts.

As the virus has spread across the nation, many communities are turning to data analytics to understand its growth. In this vein, Mayor Marty Walsh's office announced last week that its data team had put together two separate data dashboards that use continually updated information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the state's Department of Public Health (MDPH).

One platform tracks the virus on a day-to-day basis in Massachusetts, tabulating how many people are infected, how many have died and in which communities the virus has spread. The other gives viewers a look at how big an impact the virus is having in Boston. 

Both were created in about a day using ArcGIS Online — a location and data service vendor — and publicly available data from state agencies, said Stefanie Costa Leabo, Boston's chief data officer, speaking with Government Technology.

"Given the rapidly evolving situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, we took it upon ourselves to leverage publicly available tools and data to begin establishing a consolidated view of what was happening in Boston, the commonwealth of Massachusetts and the United States as a whole," said Costa Leabo. "The dashboard has evolved somewhat, and may continue to change, as the availability of data has changed over the past few weeks," she went on, explaining that the initial inspiration to create the platform came from a similar one put out by Johns Hopkins University that tracks the virus globally

"The platform allows us to connect to automated data sets that the state updates as well as draw from multiple other data sets we maintain in-house for visualizations in the same dashboard," she said. "The analytics team typically leverages this software to help us share geospatial data and maps both publicly and within the city." 

The statewide dashboard, which sources county-level data about the virus, also gets data from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency in coordination with the city’s Office of Emergency Management, she said.  

Really, the dashboards are part of a larger bundle of digital services the city has launched in recent weeks in an effort to help residents cope with the virus; these include a multi-lingual texting service that sends out updates about the state's public health situation, as well as a cadre of frequently updated fact sheets and guides.

At the same time, the city is also investigating how predictive data analytics and forecasting is also being leveraged, Costa Leabo said, in an effort to "help the city anticipate what may happen and better prepare for different outcomes."

"Ensuring residents have accurate, up-to-date information about the coronavirus is critical during this challenging time," said Walsh, in a statement. "These dashboards are another resource for residents to gather information and stay informed as we follow public health guidelines to keep ourselves and each other safe."


Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.