The woman behind what may be the world's most famous coronavirus tracker isn't a medical professional -- she's a civil engineer.
Since launching in late January, Johns Hopkins University's COVID-19 dashboard -- a black and gray map pierced by red dots marking COVID-19 cases, deaths and recoveries in 188 countries and regions -- has become central to efforts to fight the pandemic in the U.S. Public health authorities, researchers and policymakers up to the White House have cited the map; and it's become a go-to resource for journalists and the general public, with some 640 million page views to date.
Lauren Gardner, an associate professor of civil and systems engineering at Hopkins and the map's creator, says she didn't expect how uniquely authoritative the tracker, built in one day, would become. But it took off immediately, allowing people to follow the pandemic in near-real time, as it lept from China around the globe. There have been more than 9 million COVID-19 cases and 469,000 deaths worldwide to date.
"I saw it more as something to ... fill this research need, and the fact that it happened to grow into something that pretty much directly affected everyone's life on the planet is a parallel thing," says Gardner, who is also co-director of Hopkins' Center for Systems Science and Engineering. "I think it also ended up filling this other massive gap of providing information to the public."
The project was born on Jan. 21, when Gardner and her two graduate students met for coffee; the conversation turned to a never-before-seen coronavirus that had by then sickened about 200 people in China, where both students were from, and three other countries. The same day, U.S. officials announced the country's first case in a Washington state man who'd recently visited China's Hubei province. The World Health Organization had not yet declared the outbreak a pandemic. The disease caused by the virus hadn't even been given the name COVID-19 yet.
At that coffee meeting, Gardner and one of her students, Ensheng Dong, decided to track the virus, and the map went live Jan. 22. It gained such fierce traction that Gardner's team dropped everything to work on the project. By the end of January, the map's underlying dataset was getting about 200 million interactions per day. By early March, that number had swelled to 1.2 billion.
"It was pretty rough for a few months," Gardner says of her small team's around-the-clock pace. In April, she said the team wasn't getting much sleep, and that the walk from her house to campus was often her only time alone during the day.
The team initially recorded data by hand using information from local media reports and DXY, an online platform for the Chinese medical community, but the data is now primarily pulled automatically from public health databases around the world. At least two dozen people across Hopkins' engineering and public health schools, physics lab, data services and communications teams are involved with the tracker.
"It's way more stable, and it's a lot more balanced of an effort now," Gardner says. "It's funny, because now I'm really known as this data (collection) person," she adds. "My role for most of my career is actually being someone that uses data to do analysis, to build models, to help provide decision-support tools and frameworks and inform policy."
While Gardner still oversee s the map, she's largely moved on to projects that allow her to analyze COVID-19 data -- not just collect and visualize it. On June 12, Hopkins announced she'd join scientists from Scripps Research and UCLA to model how and why infectious disease pandemics spread, on a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
That's more in line with her usual work. Gardner, 35 and a native Texan, joined Johns Hopkins in 2019 after spending several years in Sydney, Australia as a civil engineering lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Her degrees are in transportation engineering, but rather than studying urban traffic and infrastructure, she was drawn to how issues like social networks, air travel, climate, land use, demographics and socioeconomic factors drive the global spread of infectious diseases.
"My work is looking at these systems engineering problems, where you have all of these different layers that are really complex, that are interacting, that are somehow each contributing and playing a role, and the way we see these observed outbreak scenarios play out," Gardner says.
She's modeled the spread of viruses like dengue, Zika and bird flu. Last year, Gardner predicted U.S. counties that could become measles hotspots based on international air travel and non-medical exemptions from childhood immunizations, which she used as a marker of vaccine hesitancy in a community.
"I have a lot of interest in issues around misinformation, disinformation and communication of science," she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left no shortage of conflicting political messages on science. On Thursday, for example, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced people would be required to wear face coverings in public, while Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts told local officials they would not receive federal funding to combat COVID-19 if they required people to wear masks in government buildings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear a mask in public if they can't socially distance, and a recent Health Affairs study estimated that, along with measures like school closures and bans on large gatherings, mandated face-coverings helped avert between 230,000 and 450,000 COVID-19 cases in 15 states and the District of Columbia as of May 22.
Gardner says she thinks her map, devoid of any spin or analysis, has provided a simple way for everyday people to track the pandemic through "authentic, transparent sources." Its popularity, she says, proves there's an appetite for data on demand -- which could be critical when fighting other global health threats.
"I'd like to say that we won't have to do it again, but I have a feeling that it's inevitable," she says of creating additional disease-mapping tools in the future. "And I have a feeling that these kinds of tools and information will now forever be provided, because there's obviously such a demand for it."
Gaby Galvin is a staff writer at U.S. News & World Report, covering public health issues for the Healthiest Communities section. She joined the company as an intern in 2016, becoming a full-time staff writer in 2017. Since then, she has worked on several investigative and data-driven projects for U.S. News, including a Solutions Journalism Network-supported exploration of the impact of pediatric cancer on migrant families in Washington State, an examination of the alarmingly high C-section rates in one Louisiana parish, and an investigation into the ongoing opioid crisis. She has appeared as a guest on WDEL, Texas Standard and SiriusXM's POTUS channel, and was a runner-up for the 2019 GW Nursing Journalism Award. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.