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Mapping the spread of COVID-19 in Ohio

May 01, 2020

This computer science major assembled a team of Buckeyes to build a user-friendly online resource.

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Ohio State student Faris Rehman poses for a photo outside of his home

Ohio State computer science and engineering student Faris Rehman teamed up with a fellow student and two alumni to create a county-by-county map that shows the statewide spread of COVID-19 cases.

Like many of us, Ohio State student Faris Rehman found himself yearning for a connection while also practicing the social distancing recommended to combat the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Rehman acted on his need by seeing beyond his parents’ home in Hilliard, Ohio, even as the walls seemed to be closing in on him.

“I had the quarantine jitters,” Rehman said. “Just to occupy myself and get my mind off freaking out about the whole situation, I thought I should do something that is valuable to people. I decided I’m going to make a map.”

Rehman used the skills he’s learning as a second-year major in computer science and engineering to construct a free online map of Ohio that tracks daily the number of COVID-19 cases in each of the state’s 88 counties.

“There’s a lot of data out there about the spread of the pandemic,” Rehman said. “A lot of the information focuses on global or nationwide patterns, but I wanted to know what was happening closest to us.

“From a purely scientific perspective, what I’m hoping is that the map helps whoever needs to track the disease be able to track it in an intuitive way. But on a more human level, I hope it gives people peace of mind by eliminating the uncertainty of not knowing how the situation is evolving. You’re able to see what’s going on.”

A team effort

Rehman launched his website and its map on March 19. Within two days, a couple of Ohio State computer science and engineering alums — his brother Afnan Rehman and their friend Faisal Baig — and third-year student Lia Ferguson volunteered to join as a virtual team to improve the map each day.

“Really at the heart of it we just wanted to do something good and something helpful,” Ferguson said. “Across our computer science department and across the university there is always a sense that we want give back to others. We have the power to make a difference in other peoples’ lives whether it be in a small way or a big way. As Ohio State students and alumni, we feel a responsibility to do that.”

Rehman is coordinating the work of the team, managing the collection and organization of data. His brother Afnan and Ferguson are working on map development and new features being added to the website. Baig is improving the user interface for desktop and mobile.

“Working as part of a team feels really important,” Rehman said, “at a time that is so unprecedented when we’re all physically separated with very little face-to-face interaction. I think people are valuing the idea of coming together and trying to solve this problem. It’s really amazing.”

Data about the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths that is being used for the team’s website and map comes directly from the state government of Ohio, which releases the statistics each day.

“The more we can be informed with good information is really important,” Ferguson said. “Everything is changing so rapidly. This thing is spreading, and there’s information pouring in constantly.

“Our goal is to create a good tool that is easy to use and easy to understand for people with all different levels of ability to understand data visualization.”

An improving web platform

Since Rehman launched his website, his team has added features such as an interactive legend and a numerical chart showing the progression of cases in each of Ohio’s counties, as well as a summary of the changes in case count over the previous 24 hours.

Rehman’s team has added to its website the COVID-19 data for the state of New York (provided by that state’s government), with plans to eventually add data from other outbreak hotspots such as the states of Washington and California.

“We’re looking for feedback so we can continuously expand and improve the site so it serves its purpose,” Rehman said.

Rehman invites other volunteers to join his team, especially anyone with UI experience, design abilities or marketing and publicity skills.

The team’s website isn’t for profit, although donations are accepted to help the four volunteers pay for website hosting and upkeep.

“We’re committed not to add advertisements to the website that you see on other sites,” Rehman said. “We’re really trying to keep this as a tool for Ohioans — and hopefully people from other states once we get them added in — to just be able to track the situation, no strings attached.”