Student-generated map visualizes travel restrictions of COVID-19 in Northern Canada

University of Alberta undergraduate science student project paints a more connected picture of community restrictions.

Andrew Lyle - 24 April 2020

Many are familiar with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Canadian border, but the virus is having a serious impact on travel within the country as well. In remote communities, responses have varied greatly, from the construction of manned checkpoints and roadblocks in some regions to orders for travellers to self-isolate on arrival. 

It can be difficult to get a complete view of these restrictions across Canada, with many sources of community-specific information across the country—and a University of Alberta Faculty of Science undergraduate student is looking to change that.

“Indigenous communities especially have had the motivation, the authority, and the geographic position to take fast and decisive action to restrict access to their communities,” said Alex McPhee, co-lead of the project and undergraduate student in the Department of Physics and conducting work in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “Freedom of movement is easy to take for granted here in urban Canada, but our normal state of affairs—where you can jump in your car and travel anywhere you want—is becoming increasingly abnormal during the pandemic.”

McPhee has been working on the project alongside UAlberta political science alumnus Samuel Dyck, who lives in Inuvik, NWT. 

“The far-reaching and proactive measures taken by these communities, going well above and beyond what we see from many larger governments, and strongly motivated by a desire to protect the oldest and most vulnerable, is something that other Canadians, and perhaps the entire world, should pay attention to,” said McPhee.

Mapping the data 

McPhee has been systematically gathering information from local news aggregators, websites, community Facebook pages, and reports from individuals. That information is then collected and visualized on a map of Canada and updated daily as new restrictions are put in place.

“Facebook bulletins and online materials can be very ephemeral, so we hope to put something together that will be of long-term value to the historical record in tracking these efforts,” said McPhee, noting that in some communities, drastic measures to forbid all entry and exit have been taken. “In places with no regular road access, ice roads have been intentionally demolished, and passenger air service has been severely restricted.”

McPhee is exploring ways to host the map and data online—but in the meantime, explains that his data sources are available by request, and he encourages all community members or interested parties to contact him directly about requests, updates, and any errors.

Efforts like this project are just one example of the innovation and grassroots initiatives within our community—and around the world—that are aiming to make our world a safer, more accessible place in the wake of COVID-19.