Lauren Gardner is an engineering professor, and tracking infectious diseases has been a focus for her and her students.

Working with a team in Australia, she developed tools to help prevent the global spread of diseases such as dengue fever. Last year, she led a team that identified U.S. counties most likely to confront a measles outbreak. And when there were reports out of Wuhan, China, about a novel coronavirus, she and two doctoral students saw an opportunity to count and map the cases and learn from the data as a research project.

But as interest in the virus grew, the Johns Hopkins University team decided to make the site public on Jan. 22. Called an interactive web-based dashboard, it includes a world map, and shows hot spots and a regularly updated catalog of cases, deaths, and those recovered. The data are sorted by country and province or state.

Her team was stunned at the response: As of early March, the site was drawing about 1.2 billion “requests” per day, defined as the number of times visitors have “accessed the underlying data” while visiting the dashboard.

“This really speaks to this huge demand for reliable, trustworthy, objective information, especially around situations like these,” Gardner, an associate professor in the department of civil and systems engineering, said at a congressional briefing this month. “This is clearly something that was missing and needs to exist moving forward.”

Now her 12-person team updates the data “in near real time” throughout the day. It is used by news sites, government agencies, private industry, even the White House, said Ed Schlesinger, dean of Johns Hopkins’ engineering school. He noted a photo on the PBS News Hour site from Feb. 28 with Alex Azar, health and human services secretary, giving Vice President Mike Pence a tour of the secretary’s operations center. Both were looking at the Hopkins map displayed on a wall.

“It’s been cited around the world, in Germany, in Brazil and Argentina and Japan, in Australia and India and Spain,” he said. “It really has, dare I say, gone viral.”

Public health officials see value in keeping the public informed about issues that can so severely impact their lives.

“The more people know what’s going on around the world, the better prepared we all will be,” said Jim Garrow, a spokesperson for Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health.

As of Thursday afternoon, the number of coronavirus cases worldwide had climbed to more than 236,000, the site noted in red. Deaths had risen to 9,790, noted in white, but on a positive note, nearly 85,000 people had recovered, noted in green.

A viewer can zoom in on a province, state, or country and get more specific statistics.

“The work she and her students do is really about tracking. It’s about predicting. It’s about seeing the ebb and flow of these sorts of infectious diseases,” Schlesinger said.

Lauren Gardner, an associate professor of civil engineeering at Johns Hopkins University
Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University
Lauren Gardner, an associate professor of civil engineeering at Johns Hopkins University

In her congressional presentation, Gardner explained that her team gets data from sources including the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Health Commission in China, and supplements information with reports from local health departments and reputable news sources. Then the team compares data with official reports.

With few exceptions, her team early on was consistently reporting data from other countries before the WHO, she said. One exception was when most of the data were being entered manually and one of her doctoral students overslept.

They started their work in an office research space but have expanded to a conference room. Following health officials’ guidelines, no more than a few are in the space at any time, to allow for social distancing, Schlesinger said.

“The very thing that they’re tracking is the thing that’s forcing them to not be all together,” he said.

They have heard from people in all corners of the world, and at times received more information than the data they had. They vet the tips and update as necessary, Schlesinger said.

“Things that we used to think of as the domain exclusively of institutions becomes the domain of individuals,” he said. “So a map, such as this, that maybe in the past only people working in the World Health Organization or CDC might have … all of a sudden everyone sitting at home can look at the dashboard.”

Gardner’s team hopes to report county level data in the United States at some point, he said. Over time, the vigorous data gathering can yield a lot of useful information, such as the success of social distancing, he said.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot learned from this.”