Counties Use Smart Mapping Technology to Stay Ahead of Zika

FILE - In this Jan., ... ]

FILE - In this Jan., ... ] Felipe Dana / AP File Photo


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Zika-transmitting mosquitos can breed in a teaspoon of standing water. Data-rich maps and GIS software allow counties to stay one step ahead.

For county-level vector control officials, staying vigilant against Zika virus and the invasive species that transmit it—Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus—comes with specific challenges.

These types of mosquitos are urban dwellers. They live among people and thrive in the tiniest amounts of stagnant water.

“An outbreak can breed within a teaspoon of water,” says David Totman, an industry solutions manager for public works at Esri, a Redlands, California-based company that develops geographic information systems software.

In Arizona, Dan Damian, a GIS programmer analyst with the Maricopa County Environmental Services Department, says that these mosquitoes have the ability to spawn in a vessel as small as a beer bottle cap.  

And in California, Bryan Kriete, a vector control technician for Santa Cruz County, acknowledges that “pretty much every house has some standing water in pots or tarps.”

As The New York Times has reported, many county governments, particularly in the rural South, still lack vector control departments and remain shockingly unprepared for a potential Zika outbreak.

On the other hand, many counties around the country have been investing in ways to make their operations more agile and with help from GIS companies like Esri, they are embracing technologies that can make even the smallest vector control department able to nimbly tackle these thorny problems.

Making the Complex, Routine

In Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, staying ahead of mosquito populations, and the risk of Zika, can at times require some creativity. This weekend, Phoenix will host the Copa America Centenario, or as the county’s vector control officers have come to call it, the Copa Zika.

“We’ve mapped the locations where the teams from South America will stay,” says Damian—acknowledging that Zika has the highest chance of being transmitted from someone who has traveled from the virus-affected areas—“and we’ve added mosquito traps to those locations.”

Large international soccer events aside, the process of monitoring mosquitoes in Maricopa County is an exercise in making the complex, routine.  

Aedes aegypti mosquitos have called Maricopa County home for the past 10 years. The species is very well-established in the area, according to Damian. To add to the challenge, in terms of area size, the county is one of the largest in the country—covering nearly 10,000 square miles.

A total of only 25 inspectors responsible for vector control monitor 750 trap sites across that staggering area every week, and service about 4,000 known breeding sites, along with tackling mosquito-related citizen complaints.

It’s hard to imagine where this operation would be without the use of smart mapping technology.

As it stands now, every one of these 25 inspectors has a laptop equipped with Collector, an app produced by Esri. Every time they visit a trap—which they locate with the help of geotagged information saved in Collector—they record the data from the trap from the field and automatically sync that information with highly detailed interactive maps.

Once the analysis of mosquitos found in traps comes back from the lab, that information too is added to the maps.

'The Data Is the Currency'

In Santa Cruz County, Zika-transmitting mosquitos have not yet been detected. The invasive Aedes aegypti have been detected in Alameda County to the north, and the bugs are “solidifying their presence in counties to the south,” as Kriete puts it—aware of the battle-heavy undertones of his phrasing.

So for now, the work of the vector control team in Santa Cruz County is all about surveillance. That means laying traps in vulnerable locations, monitoring the mosquitos in those traps and then analyzing the information they collect.Vector control officials use ArcGIS and Esri’s Collector app to record trap locations, measure areas, and upload information—all in real-time—to readily accessible data-rich maps.  “The data is the currency,” says Matt Price, a GIS manager for Santa Cruz County. “It’s really just environmental monitoring, but when you add years of data, you can start to predict when mosquitoes will breed, you can send people out in advance.

Santa Cruz County has not yet made the information they collect on local mosquitos available to the public. According to Price and Kriete, detecting Aedes aegypti mosquitos would likely be the catalyst that would change that.

In the event that mosquitos that can transmit Zika do come to Santa Cruz County, Kriete says, “we want the public to be looking at these maps and doing their own vector control work.” After all, with these invasive species able to breed in the smallest amounts of standing water, every citizen would need to pitch in to keep populations under control.

Emphasizing Vector Control Beyond the Disease of the Moment

Vector control officials from both Maricopa and Santa Cruz counties mentioned the advances that Esri’s GIS tools have made possible.

In Santa Cruz, Kriete highlighted that previous iterations of this technology were out of the price range of a small county like his. The Collector app has brought smart mapping within their reach in a big new way.

Dan Damian, along with Kriete and Price, expressed excitement about new vector control-specific templates that Esri is rolling out to go along with the app—templates that assist with planning for adulticide operations, mosquito larvicide reporting, citizen mosquito service requests and more.

David Totman of Esri was quick to note that Esri’s view of this issue is a long-term one. “Zika is just the newest disease.” And, who knows what mosquito-borne disease will come next.

For Totman and Esri, a long-term approach means having a robust vector control operation in place, regardless of which disease is on the horizon.

According to Totman, a long-term approach also means “balancing mitigation versus environmental stewardship.” Accessible data makes keeping an eye on sustainability and ecological protection all the more possible. For example, many counties are using GIS to map known bee colonies, so when anti-mosquito fogging must take place, those vulnerable pollinator populations may be avoided.  

Vector control isn’t just important because of Zika. A robust vector control strategy should be a focus for every county, regardless of the disease du jour.  

Quinn Libson writes for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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