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Research Libraries Continue Expansion of Services: University Libraries at Virginia Tech Launches LibGuide of Geospatial Data Services for Mapping COVID-19

map of distribution of COVID-19 cases in Virginia on June 16, 2020
image courtesy of Virginia Department of Health

Research libraries continue to expand a variety of services and resources to meet the changing needs of patrons during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as providing streaming services for students and working with HathiTrust to ensure emergency temporary access to collections. In mid-March, Virginia Tech University Libraries launched a LibGuide of “Geospatial Data Services: Mapping the Coronavirus.”

Ed Brooks, University Libraries geospatial data consultant, and Shane Coleman, data curation manager for the libraries, developed the LibGuide after they helped a graduate student in science technology studies with mapping the spread of COVID-19 in New York. The student was interested in mapping the possible relationship between poverty levels in that region and the spread of the virus. Coleman and Brooks were able to help the student locate viral spread data at the county level and suggested approaches for how that data could be linked to socioeconomic data from the US Census at the census-tract level.

Before this project, Brooks was receiving requests for COVID-19-related data. He took it upon himself to create a LibGuide that included many primary sources so people would have easier access to the data.

“The graduate student was working on a class project, mapping COVID-19 in New York City. We explained to the student that geospatial data is typically organized by a large location and focuses more on how the Census organizes it than the geospatial community,” said Coleman. “We walked her through how to approach it from a data-availability perspective. At that time, data was distributed on state websites and other places at a county level.”

Brooks’s and Coleman’s efforts to find data on COVID-19 viral spread for this consultation led them to collect and categorize maps, dashboards, data sets, and other resources around mapping the coronavirus for researchers at Virginia Tech (VT) and elsewhere. The LibGuide was made publicly available in late March 2020.

Their geospatial data site includes interactive maps and dashboards that showcase previously mapped cases of COVID-19, coronavirus mapping tutorials, and tips that help users map their data with open-source software. The site also includes data resources and databases featuring links to national and international resources.

Brooks helps library patrons find geospatial data, like old physical maps or Census or other geospatial data including certain types of imagery. As a land-grant university in Virginia, one of VT’s roles is to help Virginia Geographic Information Network (VGIN), a state-run group responsible for generating certain imagery data sets of which VT is a distributor.

“There are additional geospatial support services available at Virginia Tech that are more advanced. So, we’re the first line of defense,” said Coleman. “There’s one service at the university that requires funding, and students become collaborators on projects, and then there is also faculty support. We are here as a library service for users who are unfamiliar with the technology or some of the introductory processing or the geospatial field. We help them gain that first experience working with the technology and working with the data. We help library patrons better understand how we bring out the spatial components of a data set, whether it be a simple visualization or trying to extract more in-depth information. It’s a free service, and we’re able to do a fair amount.”

See “Geospatial Data Services: Mapping the Coronavirus” on the Virginia Tech University Libraries website.

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