By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributor
As coronavirus spreads across the United States, a couple of Carnegie Mellon students partnered up with a friend at New York University to create a map tracker that displays the growth and movement of COVID-19 in an easily accessible format.
Jason Zhu, a junior at CMU in the Human-Computer Interaction department, worked with his classmate Miranda Luong, also a junior, and friend Justin Chen, who is studying computer science at NYU.
“There’s something really visceral about seeing the virus, seeing it actively spread across the map, that the numbers can’t communicate,” Zhu told the Current via telephone from CMU’s campus. “Especially in the US, a lot of criticism is that people aren’t taking this as seriously as they should be taking it. You do see people treating it like there is nothing wrong, or news articles where people have said it’s not a big deal. By creating this tool, we don’t want to create panic, but we do want people to be informed and understand the severity of what’s going on.”
Zhu, Luong and Chen got this up and running fast. On March 12th, they started working on the idea of simply tracking which universities were shutting down and which were moving to on-line classes. In just a few days time, they shifted their focus to tracking COVID-19 in a way that would be easy for anybody, from a government official to your grandmother, to understand and use. Working for 10 to 15 hours a day on the project, they had their site up and running by St. Patrick’s Day.
“We’re from a design background and we’re interested in data visualization to begin with,” Luong said. “It was interesting looking at maps which had been published and we were thinking about — what did we feel the maps that we had seen already lacked. We felt that the scale of them was very general and broad. We thought maybe we should be building a site that could look at the number of cases on a county scale.”
According to Zhu, their site, www.coronashutdown.com is one of the first choropleth maps used to track COVID-19.
In layman’s terms, a choropleth is a map that uses shading and coloring to convey data. Using Pennsylvania as an example, by looking at the map, you can see clusters around both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — deeper, darker coloring. And lighter shades in the counties with fewer cases (primarily those in the middle and north of the state.
“We wanted to create something with a deeper level of granularity and scale, so everyone could make sense of it,” Zhu said of their map and how it tracks confirmed coronavirus cases on a county-by-county basis. “This was something that we thought was at the appropriate scale, so people could understand exactly where these things are, but not too granular where I’m seeing individual points, but it’s not too big, too broad, so I’m not just seeing state by state.”
As of this writing, Allegheny County has 49 confirmed cases (with one death) and Philadelphia County has 91 cases and neighboring Montgomery County with 87 cases. And both of those areas really pop out on the map. That kind of design is what you learn at a program like the HCI program at CMU where much of the focus is on how to turn statistics into visual, digital stories.
Luong and Zhu have worked on projects together, but this is the first time they’ve created something for general use. “Jason (Zhu) is really in love with making maps. He has that type of interest in it. I have done work in data visualization. I think about how to story-tell through data,” Luong said.
The team continues to update the site daily as more information becomes available. Primarily, they draw on data from Johns Hopkins, the University of Washington and the site, 1Point3Acres, all of which they have found to be extremely reliable sources.
It remains a work in progress. They are adding new features and, since the original iteration, they built in a timeline. “You can see how the coronavirus is spreading, and how quickly it’s spreading. You can see what areas are the hardest hit and how the virus is spreading across the map. From a couple hundred cases to over 22,000 cases” Zhu said. [Since speaking with the Current, the number of cases nationwide has grown to more than 32,000, with more than 400 deaths.]
Both Zhu, who is from New Jersey, and Luong, from New York City, are in Pittsburgh now, working on their on-line studies at CMU and continuing work on this site. It should be noted that there is one confirmed case coronavirus at CMU as of this writing (there is also a confirmed case at Pitt..)
Zhu said that his parents in New Jersey are in their 60s and more at risk, so his being at school felt like the safer choice for the safety of his family. “That’s a common thing I’ve heard from some classmates — people’s biggest worry is more passing it on to someone who is more vulnerable than myself.”