App of the Month - Project Pandemic: Canada Reports on COVID-19

September 1, 2020 Joy Chan

Project Pandemic is a Canada-wide data project facilitated by the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia University Montréal. Its goal is to support community preparedness by gathering and sharing data among journalism schools and local, regional and national news organizations. Learn how students and journalists collaborate on COVID-19 fact-checking, analysis and reporting through Project Pandemic: Canada Reports on COVID-19, an ArcGIS Hub site.

As the world continues to tackle COVID-19, Canadians have been tuned in to the media for the latest national and local news on the impact of this disease. Since April, a few months after the coronavirus outbreak began in Canada, Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism (IIJ), with the support of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), has led Project Pandemic – a national data co-op and collaboration designed to support Canadian news organizations by providing local maps of infections and other unique information at no cost.

“We need to support our communities and news providers,” says Patti Sonntag, IIJ director. “In this time of crisis, we believe that news organizations and educational institutions can work more effectively in tandem with each other to better serve the public.”

The search for an online mapping collaboration platform

The cooperative includes students from 13 universities and colleges and the national broadcasters Global News and CTV News along with news organizations from coast to coast, including National Observer, Regina Leader-Post, Hamilton Spectator and La Presse.

Coordinating the efforts of nearly a hundred journalists and students from different organizations required a robust platform for collecting, mapping, analyzing and sharing data. In partnership with Esri Canada, and with assistance from Qwhery and Safuture, the IIJ set up Project Pandemic: Canada Reports on COVID-19 (https://projectpandemic.concordia.ca), an online site using ArcGIS Hub, within a couple of weeks.

“The flexibility of ArcGIS Hub is astonishing,” says Patti. “We can easily get into our hub and change the website to suit the needs of different projects and groups. It allows us to have private collaboration space as we work on maps and analysis with our members, and easily share them once they are ready to be published.”

Project Pandemic’s home page features an interactive map of known active COVID-19 infections in Canada, as reported by members, particularly the IIJ’s. The map features several layers including updates by journalists for municipalities, updates by journalists for all other locations, long-term care facilities, detention centres, Indigenous communities, food-processing plants and changes since the previous week.

Members sign into the hub to access a storehouse of resources and assets to engage audiences as they together document the impacts of COVID-19 on essential services workers and vulnerable populations.

Project Pandemic maps are used regularly by member news outlets, including CTV News, Global News, La Presse, Regina Leader-Post and Prince Albert Herald, to complement their news reports about the pandemic.

Gathering local stories from across Canada

Project Pandemic is doing several investigations around COVID-19, for which data from communities across Canada are needed. Members collect information on their assigned facility or geographic area using customized surveys built on ArcGIS Survey123. Once they complete the survey, the data is automatically added to a web map on the private section of the Project Pandemic hub accessible only to members.

“Survey123 was, for me, really easy to use, and it's understandable even for someone who doesn't work on it often,” notes Lila Maitre, a current journalism student at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

“It made my work tracking and mapping COVID-19 infections a lot simpler than I ever could’ve imagined,” adds Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, a recent journalism graduate from Concordia.

Members have collected and mapped data on Canada-wide case counts and demographic data, Indigenous lands, hospitalizations and ICU admissions, retirement homes affected by COVID-19, and changes in the number of cases, recoveries, deaths and tests by health region. The series of maps can be viewed via this story map. You can also fill out surveys to contribute stories about outstanding health care workers, loved ones lost to COVID-19, or report where potential cases are and aren’t.

Taking a closer look at what stories the data tells

After a dataset is completed, the information is then analyzed, and findings and maps are shared with Project Pandemic members for them to develop stories for their respective news organizations. The news outlets release their stories after a set embargo release date so as not to scoop one another.

Members have access to Esri storytelling apps such as ArcGIS StoryMaps, which can be used to create interactive stories combining text, maps, videos and photos.

David McKie from the National Observer and Amy Luft from CTV News collaborated on analyzing infections in Montréal and found a link between household income and the spread of COVID-19. They presented their findings through the story map Is public health a privilege?

“I use ArcGIS Online a lot when teaching data journalism courses at Carleton University and the University of King’s College. It’s also part of the mapping chapter of our textbook The Data Journalist. So, I was familiar with, and a fan of, the platform coming into this project. We told an important story about an emerging problem that was eventually followed by other media outlets,” says David McKie, deputy managing editor for Canada’s National Observer.

Enabling innovative, collaborative and comprehensive news reporting

In an industry where competition for audiences’ attention and advertisers’ dollars is stiff, Project Pandemic is successfully enabling news organizations to collaborate with one another for mutual benefit.

Participating media gain access to free reporting support and audience engagement tools. They can access local maps that draw upon data and information provided by provincial governments, regional health authorities, surveys and the member journalists.

“Project Pandemic has been an invaluable resource in our continuing coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.  To have a tool that synthesizes comprehensive data from across the country along with collaboration opportunities with other media outlets gave us the power to tell unique stories important to Canadians,” says Anton Koschany, executive producer of CTV’s W5.

One of the goals for Project Pandemic is to fill the gaps in news coverage about COVID-19 and its aftermath, especially in communities that are traditionally underserved by the media, such as rural, remote and Indigenous communities. In May, Global News reported that the national journalism project could fill the coronavirus data void in Saskatchewan.

“We’re hoping that through the reporting and by empowering local news providers, we'll get a better understanding of whether the country’s most vulnerable populations are affected and if more resources are needed, alert the public,” says Patti.

All news organizations, no matter their size or capacity, are invited to join Project Pandemic by submitting their information via this reporter application form. Learn more at projectpandemic.concordia.ca

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

About the Author

Joy Chan

Joy Chan is the Marketing Communications Manager for Esri Canada. She is passionate about sharing how GIS makes the world sustainable and how you don’t need to be a cartographer to make great maps. Joy has a Master of Science degree in Integrated Marketing Communications and has over 20 years’ international experience in the technology industry.

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