Mock cholera outbreak provides online mapping lesson

Welge (left) and Landeros tracked the mock epidemic
Welge (left) and Landeros tracked the mock epidemic

On Oct. 16, there was a cholera breakout on the University of Oregon campus, and no information on the contamination source.

Fortunately, it was a mock crisis – and assistant professor Chris Bone’s Geography 181 students were on the case.

Bone teaches everyday geospatial technologies such as global positioning systems and mobile phones with location-based tracking, and how they affect our lives and society. Last fall, the geography department introduced a new course: "Our Digital Earth," which is offered once in the fall and once in the spring, focuses on how online mapping and social media shape society.

From Google Earth to Facebook to Twitter, the course covers how geospatial data are collected and used, how the technologies have transformed the way we make decisions and the societal issues that result. Topics include online mapping, satellite images, crowd-sourcing and mobile technologies for responding to natural disasters, galvanizing underrepresented communities and embedding spatial information into our daily activities.

“It is a very hands-on course for students,” Bone said. “They engage in exercises such as collecting environmental data on the UO campus and performing citizen journalism by creating digital atlases of neighborhoods in Eugene.”

A high point for the course was the cholera exercise: Bone recreated the 1854 outbreak that killed more than 600 people in London, challenging students to use the latest technology to find the contamination source on campus.

Bone’s students broke into small teams to use online mapping and social media to determine the location of the contamination. Students tracked the faux epidemic through medical reports and alerts arriving by email and Facebook posts, while monitoring mock tweets from the public for comments that might lend clues as to the contamination’s source.

Some days students only received updates on the faux crisis through emails; on others, they received an onslaught of information in the form of Facebook posts, tweets and alerts. Most groups were able to determine the source of the cholera outbreak – a water fountain in Straub Hall – after at least 10 days.

Students Josh Hughes, Forrest Hetzel, Sara Welge and Veronica Landeros, for example, zeroed in on the contamination source by using a laptop to map all water outlets in the West University Neighborhood. “This is the path where (the victim) has been,” Landeros said, tracing her finger along the computer screen as her team huddled in class one day. “I feel like it’s going to be a water source in a building.”

The team narrowed the outbreak location down to one of two spots, one of which was the correct location.

“Like most other groups, the Landeros team was cautious not to provide their answer too quickly as the students were made aware that a wrong decision could lead to further new cases of cholera,” Bone said.

Landeros said: “I really enjoyed the group work and it prepared me for the next-level GIS class that I’ll be taking in spring term. I’ve become more aware of online mapping and I feel that I’ll use all of the information from this class as I work towards my degree in geography.”

Chris BoneIn the course, Bone explains how real-time mapping technology is used by “riot managers” to keep unruly crowds one step ahead of police officers. Students also learn how to identify urban “food deserts” where low-income families have minimal access to affordable yet nutritional food.

“Students can create something tangible that means something to them because of the social component,” Bone said. “We don’t focus on the technology, we focus on the problem. The students know the technology” – he laughed – “more than I do!”

There is an increasing demand in the job market for individuals who possess both geospatial skills such as web-based mapping and social media skills and knowledge.

“Students come in and ask, ‘what kind of skills can I get?’” Bone said. “What we attempt to accomplish in ‘Our Digital Earth’ is to provide students with these skills in order that they proceed on to more advanced courses in geography that not only make them employable, but that also help them to understand how these emerging technologies are shaping our societies.”

-- story and photos by communications specialist Matt Cooper, UO media relations