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Regulatory agencies and location intelligence in times of crisis

Regulatory agencies across Canada are using location intelligence as a weapon in their crisis response arsenals. In this article, Esri Canada management consultant Kelsey Davis walks through three examples of regulatory agencies currently using geospatial tools to support their response efforts, helping them better inform the public and enhance public safety.

Regulatory agencies fulfill an important and critical role in society. They are an integral part of everyday life for citizens, ensuring that the necessary governance and accountabilities exist to keep societies running safely and effectively day in and day out. But what happens when an unforeseen societal crisis happens and governments are forced to implement lockdowns on a nationwide scale?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, regulatory agencies are on the front lines of the fight as governments around the world make difficult decisions and flex their legal muscles to slow the spread of the virus and mitigate its impacts.

While public health agencies are dealing with the virus head on, it would be difficult to find any regulatory agency that is not impacted by and involved in managing the response to the pandemic. The widespread nature of the disruption has left regulatory agencies scrambling to respond, some more than others. The most successful are those that have been able to quickly identify and use every available resource at their disposal to effectively function through the crisis and operationalize the orders that governments have had to enact. In this article, I’ll examine a few agencies that have done just that using geospatial tools.

Public health

It’s no secret that the spread of viruses is very spatial in nature and that location has been used for many years by health scientists in research and analysis. Much of that analysis will have been done after the fact and in a relatively constrained or controlled spatial context. The difference with COVID-19 is the speed at which it has spread throughout the entire world.

Getting ahead of COVID-19 has required that health agencies use every means possible to rapidly gather, analyze and widely publish vast volumes of data and information. Amid this information rush, two of the most prevalent and important questions have been: where is COVID-19, and where will it go next?

Modern spatial tools have been designed specifically with this task in mind and have aided the effort immensely for those agencies that have been able to leverage them.

The Public Health Agency of Canada’s Canada COVID-19 Situational Awareness Dashboard is one example that has gained significant traction in Canadian news media. A collaboration of the Public Health Agency of Canada, Statistics Canada and Natural Resources Canada, the dashboard provides an easy-to-understand visualization that keeps people informed at-a-glance.

The Public Health Agency of Canada’s Canada COVID-19 Situational Awareness Dashboard has been built using Esri’s ArcGIS Experience Builder and is regularly updated with relevant data on the progress of COVID-19 across Canada.

Healthcare professionals

Besides primary frontline healthcare workers and the general public, there are numerous other healthcare professionals like dentists, chiropractors, physiotherapists and optometrists, to name just a few. Each separate profession has its own regulatory agency. These profession-specific agencies do not necessarily have access to the same tools and resources as the federal Public Health Agency of Canada. This has created a challenging situation for both practitioners and patients throughout the pandemic.

In many cases, there is an opportunity for regulatory agencies to improve their coordination with broader sweeping mandates announced by government officials. While emergencies have been the priority for both patients and practitioners alike, knowing where to go to receive emergent care has been a significant challenge for many agencies and the professionals and patients for whom they’re responsible.

Now that we’re entering a stage of the pandemic where slow and cautious governments are starting to announce relaxing lockdown restrictions, disconnects continue.

Take the dental profession, for example. Many economic relaunch strategies have specifically indicated that dentists will be some of the first practitioners allowed to resume services, with the caveat that they must be adhering to the rules and regulations set out by their specific regulatory agencies. Nonetheless, in some regions, the regulatory agencies have not published any guidelines in conjunction with the government’s announcements, leaving both practitioners and patients uncertain again as to where people can go to seek medical services.

Having the ability to quickly publish information about where practitioners can send patients and where patients can go to get care provides a solid case for health-services-related regulatory agencies who are not already doing so to leverage geospatial technology. It could literally mean the difference between living or dying, in extreme cases. Showing people where to go to obtain the care they need when they need it could also greatly reduce future medical complications.

Public Health Ontario has taken steps towards doing this by publishing their web-based Health Services Locator Map, which makes use of Esri technology. While it currently only identifies provincial public health facilities, collaborating with practitioner-specific regulatory agencies and colleges to add locations for all health care resources would add tremendous value. Regulatory agencies keep records for active service providers as part of their mandates and publish this information on their websites, so we know the data exists.

Public Health Ontario’s Health Services Locator Map uses Esri technology to help users access services faster. It shows users their nearest health services, including hospitals, health unit sites and laboratories.

Unfortunately, in many cases, the information that gets published uses difficult-to-use formats like static text-based lists and tables. Context, and dynamic links between need and location, may be absent in these examples. Regulatory agencies looking to provide the populations they’re serving with the information they need can benefit, instead, from geospatial displays that show information in a clear and straight-forward way. Rather than having to scroll through lists with thousands of records, users can more easily visualize where they need to go to find care using a map-based solution—and finding emergent care is of utmost importance in a pandemic.

Despite lockdowns, people still need access to care, most notably emergent care. Regulatory agencies expect their professional members to be available to respond. As these examples demonstrate, data and limited solutions are already publicly available. A little bit of spatial context and innovative solution creativity would produce a lot of user-friendly and relevant insight.

Public safety

There are many regulatory agencies that collectively manage different aspects of society to keep citizens safe. The timing of the pandemic in Canada coincides with the typical annual timing of wildfires in some areas.

Specific regulatory agencies exist to manage fires and responses to them when they break out. Some agencies have been quick to use geospatial tools to provide insight to citizens. In Alberta, for example, fires have thankfully not become a problem so far this spring. Part of the reason is that there has been a concerted effort to minimize the human activities that sometimes cause them in areas where wildfires are usually problematic.

The Alberta Fire Bans app, a project of Alberta Parks, makes it easy for Albertans to see whether recreational fires are permitted near them, helping them do their part to prevent wildfires. The app uses Esri technology to show the locations of fire advisories, fire restrictions and fire bans across the province.

With the COVID-19 lockdowns in place, being able to respond to a fire would mean lifting restrictions on social distancing, effectively doubling the risk for those affected who would normally otherwise only be exposed to the risks associated with the fire. Online interactive maps like the Alberta Fire Bans app created by Alberta Parks leave no uncertainty for citizens. So far this has been very effective in mitigating additional public safety events during the pandemic.

In summary

The prevalent use of geospatial tools and technology by some regulatory agencies to not only tackle the pandemic head on but also help to keep citizens safe and healthy will serve as a model for other agencies to follow going forward.

The use and benefits of location intelligence technologies are widespread and generally well-known when society is functioning normally. These examples of its use by regulatory agencies throughout this pandemic have also shown just how helpful they can be when things aren’t running quite so normally.

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About the Author

Kelsey Davis is a senior management consultant at Esri Canada. He has over 22 years of experience helping organizations strategically leverage geospatial technology. Extensive technical experience and significant business acuity give him substantial insight on how geospatial competencies fit within the broader business picture. Kelsey helps clients transform their location intelligence capabilities in order to drive business innovation.

Profile Photo of Kelsey Davis