How technology and data visualisation have combated coronavirus

If 2020 is remembered for anything, it will be for the coronavirus pandemic that sent shock waves around the world and changed human behaviour – possibly forever. Countries including the UK introduced strict lockdowns that curbed the way people could live. 

However, not all countries reacted the same way to the threat of COVID-19 – with the UK itself originally favouring a different strategy. What changed this? Technology, of course.

Since the advent of computers, digital technology has helped scientists fight diseases. In the coronavirus outbreak, technology has been brought to bear in an…unprecedented (I bet we’re all sick of that word) level. China used their state surveillance and tracking programs to heavily reduce the spread of infection, while the UK began introducing lockdowns as a direct result of data visualisations produced by Imperial College London.

Without data visualisation, the UK could have experienced 250,000 deaths which would overwhelm the NHS. Without smartphone applications, China could not have gained control over their own outbreak. 

China and smartphone surveillance

China has a heavy surveillance system in place which tracks its citizens through facial recognition and drone CCTV, smartphone apps and more. This strict network of surveillance is all tied to your national ID card – which means you have multiple sources of data attributed to your card. The Chinese authorities can then track citizens by their ID – which has helped locate where confirmed coronavirus cases appear and alert citizens near these people as well as alert for those who break quarantine. 

Going further, China have also created a QR code that is colour coded by risk of infection to assign to users to help reduce the spread. 

Singapore, South Korea and Iran, despite lacking the same level of state surveillance, have all adopted similar smartphone tracking systems to ‘ping’ citizens who may be exposed to the virus. This has helped curb numbers in all of the countries who have done so.  

China’s use of technology extends beyond surveillance – they used robots to send medical supplies to patients without risking infection and drones to transmit messages to those ignoring social distancing. 

The UK and data modelling

The UK’s adoption of isolation policies came about as a direct result of data visualisation. Before Imperial College London introduced their model, our strategy was to create herd immunity by allowing a certain percentage of our population to be infected. Data proved that this would lead to a huge number of deaths. Instead, the model suggested, we had to lockdown the country as Italy and China had done. 

Figure 1: Source, BBC News

As a result, the term ‘flatten the curve’ has become commonplace in popular culture. The ‘curve’ here refers to data visualisation – which shows clearly that lockdown measures can reduce the curve in infection rate and provides clear visual feedback to everyone in the UK that their efforts will make a difference.

This is the power of data visualisation – it creates immediate and apparent impact in people’s minds. The original model from Imperial College London was enough to divert government strategy and graphs introduced since have helped social media users understand why they are in lockdown and how it helps other. 

Figure 2: Flatten the Curve visualisation

All of these visualisations are made possible by feeding data into a system. Whether it’s rate of new infection, mortality or recovery, everything must be fed in and analysed in order to output a graphic. In the case of COVID-19, data modelling is providing immediate stimulus for change that is influencing both our own, and the world’s governments. 

Data dashboards

The most clear example of powerful data visualisation interpreting the outbreak comes from Public Health England, who have a powerful dashboard that draws in data from local authorities to create a map of UK infections, death rates and new cases. 

Figure 3: PHE Visualisation

What we can learn from data

When this is over, it must always be remembered that it was data modelling that helped the UK avert disaster. It was this same data that helped change public perception and create a more positive attitude towards lockdown measures that prevented the disease’s spread. 

In business, data is the clearest way to make informed decisions. Collecting and interpreting this data, unfortunately, is not an easy task and most businesses don’t know where to begin. 

At Inspired Agency, they can identify your various data sources for you and develop ways to harvest and harness that data. They will build powerful, bespoke tools that enable your business to make critical decisions with the right information – just as the world used data to help battle this outbreak. 


Image credit: Freepik