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Idea 10 Mapping disease Watch it spread

Mapping disease: Watch it spread

This project idea was contributed by Noel Jenkins

Exam Board Components that this project links with
AQA A Unit 2, Section A: Population Change and Section B: The Development Gap
AQA B Unit 1, Section B: The Urban Environment
Edexcel A Unit 1, Section A: General Skills
Unit 3, Section A: The Human World
Edexcel B Unit 2, particularly Topic 1: Population Dynamics and Topic 7: Development Dynamics
OCR A Unit A674: Issues in our fast changing world
OCR B Possible theme for issue investigation
Theme 2: Population and Settlement
Theme 4: Economic Development
WJEC B Theme 3: People Work and Development


The topic of disease lends itself to being taught with the latest geospatial technologies such as Google Earth, and other interactive maps. The science of modem epidemiology is commonly agreed to have begun with the physician John Snow, who mapped the incidence of cholera outbreaks in London. The story of John Snow provides a really interesting way into the topic, even though the chronology of events that led to his famous removal of the Broad Street water pump handle are challenged by recent research (Brody et al, 2000).

Disease is one of the optional issue-based themes on the new OCR B syllabus, and the suggested ICT applications will be of value regardless of the GCSE specification studied. By offering students the chance to select the most appropriate ICT application, the lesson meets the generic GCSE skill requirement of ‘evaluating methods of collecting presenting and analysing evidence’ (Edexcel B for example).

Overview of this Activity

  • Students use three different cartographic techniques for displaying disease: a Google Earth animation, cartograms and an interactive map.
  • They consider the relative merits of each technique.
  • Students choose one cartographic technique on which to base some additional research into an epidemic – either HIV/AIDS or avian influenza (or another of their choosing).
  • They complete a short illustrated report on the distribution and spread of the disease.

Running the Activity

1. The photo of the replica Broad Street pump (John Snow’s memorial) above makes a great starter. Can students guess why the handle is missing?

2. Show an image of John Snow’s December 1854 map and tell the story of the pump. Note the recent debate over the exact chronology of events.

3. Demonstrate next the spread of avian flu in Google Earth using the link from Declan Butler’s blog that can be found below, and with some cartograms of avian flu and/or HIV AIDS from the Maplecroft Maps and/or Worldmapper websites. Possibly the cartograms could be shown as a Power Point. Also demonstrate the interactive map of HIV AIDS from Maplecroft Maps.

4. Students have time to explore each of the three cartographic techniques. They complete a comparison table showing the pros and cons of each one.

5. Students then use their choice of ICT application to prepare a short report about either HIV/AIDS or avian flu. The report might cover origins, spread and current distribution patterns.

Further Ideas

  • The Global Health Atlas from the World Health Organization, is a GIS that could make an alternative resource for students who are more competent at extracting and mapping data.
  • GermTraX is an interesting map that aggregates sickness reports in a simple Google Map interface. This could make an interesting extra item for the lesson, especially if any of the students are feeling off colour!


  • See the article about Epidemiology on Wikipedia.
  • Find out more about John Snow by visiting the website that has been created in his honour by the UCLA (you can also gain access to the old maps of London that Snow used in his research).
  • The Worldmapper site also provides excellent disease cartograms.
  • To see the spread of avian flu over time on Google Earth, view the downloads available on the personal blog of Declan Butler, a senior reporter at Nature.
  • For more ideas for projects based on the topic of disease, see the Geography of Disease pages on our website.


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