College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

Statements Feature: Mapping a Virus

Mapping a Virus

by John Degroote, Alex Oberle & Mark Welford, professors of geography


Mark WelfordThere is an enduring tradition of analyzing health and disease using geographic perspectives and techniques.

Cholera epidemics were thought to be caused by “bad air” until 1854 when British doctor John Snow utilized a geographical grid to connect a concentration of deaths to one public water pump. Studying patterns of health and disease across geographic space has since been a mainstay of public health and epidemiology.

Over the past few decades, geography’s role has been greatly elevated through the widespread use of geographic information systems (GIS), a computer-based platform that allows for powerful and nearly instantaneous analysis of data across geographic space. GIS and related technologies are critical for disease surveillance, analysis and visualization, with more recent applications and platforms revolutionizing the way the public health community communicates to the general public.

For Iowans, as for many states and countries, a dynamic, interactive dashboard is the primary way that we monitor the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in Iowa.

John DeGroote

Local health departments have designed GIS dashboards to develop innovative means to support residents during this unprecedented crisis. A good example is the Atlanta area’s 

Cobb County COVID-19 Community Hub, a resource that includes a crowd-sourced grocery store inventory dashboard for shoppers to report which supermarkets have supplies or shortages of high-demand products.

UNI’s Department of Geography has considerable experience and expertise in this area, through research, outreach and teaching.

Mark Welford, the department’s new head, co-published six articles on plague pandemics and wrote the 2018 book, “Geography of Plague Pandemics.”

In 2010, Welford and his colleagues predicted that modern rates of tropical/sub-tropical deforestation and “bush meat” consumption would likely encourage the emergence of additional lethal, easily transmitted pathogens in the near future. Sadly, with COVID-19, they have been proven right.


In early June 2020, Andrey Petrov, Tatiana Degai, John DeGroote and Welford, along with Alexander Savelyev from Texas State University, obtained a $199,998 National Science Foundation (NSF) Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant for, "Tracking and Understanding Spatiotemporal Dynamics of the 

COVID-19 Pandemic in the Arctic." The team's goal is to improve what is known about COVID-19 in the Arctic and develop tools for establishing the pandemic’s relationship to sociocultural, economic, institutional and environmental contexts and changes. The grant will fund near-real-time data collection, bringing together an interdisciplinary team of experts in data science, geoinformatics, visualization, spatial epidemiology and anthropology/Indigenous studies. 

UNI's GeoTREE Center, led by DeGroote, has a history of published research that uses GIS technologies to examine West Nile virus occurrence across geographic space. The center has also collaborated on local and state public health projects by leveraging GIS technologies to examine health care disparities in Iowa (maternal and child care), low birth weight in Black Hawk County and other projects.

These opportunities, as with most research initiatives within the department, are supported by the hands-on assistance of both graduate and undergraduate students. The department prides itself on this ability for students to directly apply what they've learned to address real-world issues.

This spring, students were eager to find ways to utilize their talents to help their communities. Maritza Salinas, '20, independently developed a GIS-based dashboard to help Iowa residents track COVID cases by county and find valuable resources.

Professor of Geography Alex Oberle, who served as an intern at the Arizona Department of Health as a Ph.D. student,  has already been integrating health topics into his GIS I course. With all eyes on the pandemic, he will also integrate this theme into his fall Human Geography 

classes, including connections to course topics like diffusion, globalization, social justice and environmental change.

In these chaotic times, it will become all the more critical to have a highly-skilled workforce to swiftly analyze geographic changes. We are proud of the work our geography faculty, students and alumni contribute to these efforts.


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