SFU researchers to map COVID-19 vulnerability throughout BC

The project aims to create a simple-to-read resource for provincial policy and decision-makers

Nadine Schuurman (left) and Valorie Crooks (right). Photo courtesy of SFU News.

Written by: Zach Siddiqui, Humour Editor

An SFU-based research team of professors and graduate students will be looking at the communities in BC most vulnerable to COVID-19. Headed by Dr. Valorie Crooks and Dr. Nadine Schuurman, this project will visually map these communities to offer key information in a clear way for policy and decision makers. 

In an interview with The Peak, Crooks discussed the mapping project’s origins, structure, and purposes.

“Our instinct as researchers is to understand things that we see happening around us in the world, and I started to think: What can I do, or [what can] myself and colleagues who I work with do, to support our understanding of what’s going on?” said Crooks, a trained health geographer. From there, she reached out to Schuurman; the two have worked together many times over the past 10 years on projects combining Crooks’ qualitative research skills with Schuurman’s expertise in geographic information systems.

Crooks outlined three main “scenarios” of vulnerable communities to be mapped: spaces with more frequent COVID-19 cases, places with less ICU capacity and fewer resources with which to weather a possible outbreak, and areas where people are facing the consequential health effects of a pandemic — such as financial struggle, lost housing, and exacerbated depression and stress. 

As an example of what kinds of information might be conveyed, Crooks offered residential facilities, where workers may be at higher risk for contracting COVID-19, and their surrounding communities.

“Within 30 kilometres of, for example, a large prison, we might see that that’s the area in which many of the people who work there are located. And so that’s an area that we might view as having a particular kind of vulnerability.”

With these maps, the team hopes to provide a resource for decision-makers in BC, such as health authorities and members of government.

“The goal isn’t for [a decision-maker] to pick up a map and go, ‘a-ha! I know the solution. I know the answer,’” says Crooks. “We want our maps to be used as part of a decision-making process, to go in conjunction with the epidemiological information that’s coming up, the statistical information, the popular pushes that are coming on social media and coming from the media.”

Crooks also emphasized that the maps they make will be “beautiful” in terms of design while communicating complex information. Elaborating on this, she explained that maps, as a highly public medium, are uniquely ideal methods to convey pandemic information. 

“As members of the public, we’re not unfamiliar with seeing maps and getting meaning from them — whether that meaning is giving us a spatial sense of proximity — I’m here, that’s there — or, for example, [population] density,” she said. “Because of our popular use of maps, maps can also be this really interesting way of conveying really powerful information in the decision-making context. And that’s because it’s a tool people have some familiarity with.”

Besides Crooks and Schuurman, the research team includes Leah Rosenkratz and Jessica Tate, both graduate students, and Dr. Melissa Giesbrecht, the research coordinator. The team plans to develop and refine their maps through an “iterative loop” of research steps, says Crooks. Starting with modelling the data they will display, they will go on to survey medical authorities on variables to consider, draft the maps themselves, and interview decision-makers on what parts of the maps are or are not useful. In repeating this process, the researchers can refine their findings until they are fit to be more publicly shared.

Ultimately, Crooks emphasized the importance of this constant consultation throughout the process.

“It’s so important to come back to the end-user and decision-maker community and, say, ‘OK, is this useful for you? Is this the way that you would want to see it?’” 

As the project continues, Crooks invites anyone interested in asking questions to email her or to follow her Twitter at @ValorieCrooks for updates; she expects that the maps, once completed, will be shared publicly.