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Mapping technology shows just how quickly people - and viruses - can spread

BOSTON — At the beginning of the spread of the novel coronavirus in December 2019, we didn’t really have an idea of just how quickly the virus could spread.

It was when COVID-19 was officially declared a global pandemic that the situation became very real for the entire world - especially those in countries where the virus had already spread far and wide and claimed hundreds of lives on a daily basis.

So far, it’s become clear that obtaining as much data as possible is the best way to combat the virus, mainly by testing as many people as possible and ensuring we have the appropriate approach to deal with the numbers. Now, mapping the outbreak is the goal for many tech companies across the globe as we learn more about how and when COVID-19 spreads from person to person.

Boston 25 News found two companies that teamed up to show just how far and wide the Spring Break revelers in Florida spread out after congregating at a single beach during a national call for social distancing in early March.

Mapping platform Tectonix teamed up with cell phone location data tracker X-mode to create a viral video that shows thousands leaving one Florida beach over Spring Break, fanning out across the country and potentially spreading the coronavirus.

“Despite international news, no one seemed to be changing behavior based on what we saw at all, like nothing happened,” said Rob Gresham, Co-Founder of Tectonix.

Together, both companies were able to “analyze secondary locations of anonymized mobile devices that were active at a single Ft. Lauderdale beach during Spring Break” and track them as the spread out across the country.

Most of the more than 5,000 people in the sample size were headed to the Northeast.

Co-Founders of Tectonix, Rob Gresham and Elliott Bradshaw say they hope to apply their mapping technology to other areas and industries impacted by the virus.

“We’re looking to apply that technology not just to looking at how Spring Breakers spread coronavirus, but home logistics shipments are moving around the world and how airline trends are being impacted by this type of crisis,” said Bradshaw.

Researchers at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and Harvard have developed their own way to map the virus. Using crowd sourcing, https://www.covidnearyou.org/#!/ asks the public to report current symptoms in real time and be identified only by ZIP code.

“There really is a lack of understanding of the true burden of this disease across our country, particularly with the limited amounts of testing being done,” said Kara Sewalk, one of the developers of COVID Near You.

Sewalk says the goal is to help public health experts and government officials understand how many people are infected on a local, state and federal level.

“It’s not meant to replace surveillance of COVID or any other type of illness, but rather to augment existing surveillance systems to supplement the information that we’re collecting across the U.S.,” said Sewalk.