Penn Libraries News

Mapping COVID-19 Sentiments

Map of U.S. with social media icons transposed.

“The Libraries is the only place on campus where anyone from any department or center can get help with GIS and mapping,” says Girmaye Misgna, Penn’s Mapping & Geospatial Data Librarian.

The Data & GIS team’s typical duties include consultation on theses, capstones, and papers for faculty and students; tailored workshop training for groups and individuals; faculty and staff collaboration; and the collection, analysis, and storage of geospatial data. 

“We also do outreach,” says Misgna. “We’ve taught several classes about GIS as applied to social justice.” 

For example, the Data & GIS team assisted GAPSA with the Accessibility Mapping Project. The resultant map allows users to track which spaces and utilities on campus are physically accessible and which are not.

Most recently, Misgna facilitated a project geared toward healthcare professionals — the Penn COVID-19 US Twitter Map.

Lyle Ungar from the Department of Computer and Information Science recognized the potential utility of mapping public communications — as expressed on social media — regarding COVID-19. 

Ungar’s collaborator, research scientist Sharath Chandra Guntuku, emailed the Data & GIS team and asked if they could help build a map with a breakneck turnaround time.

Misgna agreed and got right to work. He set up the researchers with the web mapping software ArcGIS Dashboards. He also Zoomed with students working on the project to help them rapidly design an application that could make geographic sense of great quantities of data.

The project samples two to three percent of U.S. Twitter communications — a daily total of four million messages mapped on a state-by-state basis. “So they gather the data with an API,” Misgna explains, “extract keywords that describe sentiments about COVID-19, and then map those keywords onto the United States.” 

Using the map, medical and public health officials can gauge the severity of an outbreak in a given location and track the public’s reaction. “The dashboard aims to provide actionable information for patients, providers, health systems, and policy makers,” the project site explains.

For Misgna, the utility of GIS for public health speaks to a broader trend he sees in academia. “GIS technology is becoming an indispensable part of academic research and instruction in an array of unanticipated subject areas,” he says. “We live in an increasingly interconnected world. Our team at the Libraries can help faculty and staff from any discipline map those connections in a meaningful way.”

For a full list of GIS resources available at the Penn Libraries, please visit the Mapping & GIS Guide.