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CHIPS Articles: Air Force geospatial tools help commanders identify COVID-19 risk

Air Force geospatial tools help commanders identify COVID-19 risk
By Joe Bela, Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center Public Affairs - April 20, 2020
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas (AFNS) -- An innovative solution by the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center’s Detachment 4 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, is giving commanders from U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa the ability to accurately assess operational risk and protect lives in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Geospatial tools developed by the detachment’s GeoBase team are providing commanders with near real-time data detailing the spread of the disease in their areas of responsibility. Commanders are using this capability to make decisions to sustain mission readiness and help mitigate the threat of exposure to personnel.

Lt. Col. Kerry Lewis, a USAFE-AFAFRICA bioenvironmental engineer, contacted Det. 4 in March for help with developing a practical solution for tracking and reporting COVID-19 information. The two organizations worked together to create geospatial applications to meet USAFE’s specifications, which included the capability to collectively synchronize and share data between organizations.

The framework for Det. 4’s work was already in place. Months earlier, a collaborative venture between the Air Force Surgeon General’s Office and the Air Force Civil Engineer Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, led to the first Air Force COVID-19 dashboard, an interactive data visualization tool that could be used to track, analyze and report information about the virus.

According to Roger Clarke, a AFCEC Geographic Information System Program manager, the Department of Defense guidance on COVID-19 prompted the organizations to take action. Lewis and geospatial engineers from AFCEC’s Air Force GeoBase team worked swiftly to complete the project by Jan. 30.

By March, the increase in COVID-19 cases in the European theater prompted the USAFE surgeon general to seek assistance from Det. 4.

“During our discussions, we concluded that a web-based map application, in conjunction with daily mapping products, would deliver the well-rounded product suite required to identify areas of concern,” said Tony Adduci, a Det. 4 Basing and Beddown Branch geographer.

Det. 4’s solution added two other tools to the previously developed COVID-19 dashboard to standardize reporting and eliminate redundancies between the organizations required to report data: GeoPDF and a COVID-19 map viewer.

GeoPDF is a software-generated exportable geospatial map. GeoPDF transforms a common PDF map into a robust tool. Instead of looking at a single-layer map, users can view multiple data layers by turning them on or off.

“This information can be accessed without network connectivity because all the information is embedded within the PDF file itself,” Adduci said. “Photographs, documents and other information can be hyperlinked to the GeoPDF.”

The map viewer tool displays current coronavirus cases within specific areas. The data is updated daily and provides a near real-time environment for analyzing and assessing the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The viewer utilizes COVID-19 case data from 35 international, national and regional organizations, then links these data sets to corresponding geographic regions affected by the pandemic,” Adduci said.

Together, the tools deliver enhanced capabilities that can help identify the hotbeds of the virus in Europe and Africa.

“We initially started capturing data on March 17, starting with identifying COVID-19 cases from countries with a DoD presence in Europe. Our intent was to find regional or district cases rather than whole country counts,” Adduci said. “This provides us with an exact geospatial picture of where the virus is spreading within these countries without having to comb through the ministry of health documents to identify these locations.

“To date, we are collecting data from over 40 countries, encompassing over 800 regional and district areas in Europe. The data is explicitly collected from the government ministry of health sources rather than from news sources whose data may not be accurate.”

According to surgeon general officials, the collaborative effort is a success. The products provide a site picture that enables commanders to make operational risk decisions for personnel, decisions that would have been impossible to make before the development of these tools. As the product continues to improve, other major commands and combatant commands will have access to more of the valuable information they need.

“The Air Force GeoBase team’s agile COVID-19 capability development, and responsive collaboration with our mission partners and civic agencies, has far-reaching impacts on the health and safety of our Total Force personnel,” Clarke said.

The Air Force’s COVID-19 Dashboard is giving commanders the ability to accurately assess operational risk and protect lives in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. The dashboard, an interactive data visualization tool, is used to track, analyze and report information on the spread of the disease. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo
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