Carnegie Mellon University
March 31, 2020

Design Students Develop Interactive Coronavirus Map

Two juniors create map presenting aggregate data that's easy for all to understand

By Joseph W Lyons

With the overwhelming amount of data coming in every day during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to have tools that not only aggregate that data, but are also able to present it in easy-to-understand ways.

Two juniors in the Design for Environments track at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design set out to do just that by developing an interactive choropleth map & dashboard tracking the coronavirus outbreak across U.S. counties. Jason Zhu and Miranda Luong (BDes ’21), along with NYU computer science student Justin Chen, recently discussed their work in Medium’s “Towards Data Science” publication and locally were featured in an article by Pittsburgh Current.

The idea for our map came about on March 12th when the number of COVID-19 cases started to rapidly rise in the U.S., particularly in the Seattle and New Rochelle area," said Zhu. "During this time, a lot of tools and maps to track new confirmed cases of the virus began to emerge. However, many of the maps only published confirmed cases on a state-scale.

"These maps are undoubtedly important, but tend to be too broad and don't provide a useful level of detail. For large states, such as California, viewing cases at state-scale may be valuable to a national health official, but not as helpful for state officials, local officials, or regular citizens who are hoping to better understand the impact of the virus.

"With these considerations in mind, we sought to create a visual that better represents the outbreak at the appropriate scale for everyday people."

The team used Mapbox GL JS and a public data set crowdsourced by several institutions and then developed a map of the United States that displayed confirmed cases. They then moved to chart each coordinate to its relevant counties.

"We felt this was an appropriate amount of granularity — useful for all levels of government and for the everyday citizen," said Zhu. "To not dismiss the importance of seeing state-by-state numbers, we also pulled U.S. state data from the Johns Hopkins CSSE database to display on the left."

The first iteration of the website was a simple tool that crowdsourced a list of higher learning institutions across North America who were considering the shift to online classes. On the first day, the site had over 1000 unique visitors. By March 17th, the team created one of the first choropleth maps to visualize new confirmed COVID-19 cases across U.S. counties, which has now helped thousands of visitors from 33 different countries.

"We hope that it becomes a tool that anyone can use to better understand where and how seriously COVID-19 is impacting our country," added Zhu. "Seeing the rapid confirmation of new cases as testing ramps up communicates the urgency and seriousness of the situation."

Soon, the team plans to develop a map and dashboard for each state, build upon the map's timeline feature, and integrate their map with other COVID-19 projects.

Beyond the development of this tool, Zhu and Luong are adjusting to their new normal as they transition to online learning to complete their junior year with the School of Design.

"It's a difficult and sad time, but it is amazing to see how strongly the CMU community has come together," said Zhu. "I've found countless examples of people doing their best to help each other every day. Even in my online classes, the magnitude of the situation is not lost on my professors. I really appreciate not only the accommodations they have made, but the tireless work they do to create as close to a studio learning experience as possible."

"For weeks, I was glued to the news, reading every day at every hour for the latest updates on our nation's coronavirus situation," added Luong. "Coming from New York, my family has been severely impacted by the virus and although it's not quite the same experience as attending classes in person, I'm thankful to everyone who has made tremendous efforts to ease this transition.

"This is an experience that we can all hopefully get through together — but still 6 feet apart!"