“During emergencies reality is not enough”

Imagine a fire at its peak. There is smoke everywhere and high flames that impair the vision. In this scenario, the actions of first responders are very compromised. But imagine again that this reality is not all they see. Through their glasses, they are able to know the position of all the team members, get information about the terrain and communicate with the control centre. This way they can make fast choices and act to tackle the emergency in a short time. Although you might think this scene belongs to the domain of fiction, it’s more than real: it’s Augmented Reality.

Augmented Reality is a technology used in devices to complement our vision with a virtual layer of information. Although its use in disasters is relatively new, the technology has been successfully applied to other fields since its development in the late 1960s. One of the first uses were attributed to the Air Force allowing military to control virtually guided operations. After, it was applied to advertising, tourism, industry and to the video games sector, with the recent exponent of Pokemon GO.

“Since Augmented Reality enhances our senses, its use in disaster situations can be crucial: during emergencies, reality is not enough” comments Giorgia Sassi Communication Manager at JoinPad, an Italian company specialised in this technology. As part of the I-REACT project, JoinPad is currently applying Augmented Reality to create smart glasses applications for first responders. “Either through an object recognition algorithm or through geolocalisation, the technology will able to identify objects in the responders’ field of vision and add important data to aid operations”, explains Sassi.

These glasses will condense all the information from the field and show it to the first responders. Agnese Ragucci, Interaction designer at JoinPad, explains that this way “they will be able to know the position of other teams, the missions assigned to each of them, alerts or warnings in the surroundings or even get help to navigate to assets or points of interest”. In addition, thanks to this technology, responders will be able to report from the ground without using their hands through videos, voice and text. “In I-REACT one of important tasks is to investigate speech-to-text and text-to-speech algorithms to enrich the user experience” adds Ragucci.

The project’s smart glasses offer another radical advantage by enabling the formulation of precise instructions from the control centres to the responders. “One of the biggest limitations in disaster response is when the operator has to describe the scenario remotely through a mobile phone and then be able to interpret the instructions in a very short timeframe” explains Ragucci. However, the I-REACT glasses will overcome this limitation as they are coupled to a camera to send videos to the control centre. “With our smart assistance system, the first responders will become the eyes of the decision-makers, which will greatly improve the operation efficiency and speed up the reaction times” she adds.

Whereas big efforts are being made in the I-REACT consortium to collect and process information from multiple sources, the role of JoinPad is to ensure that this information is provided to the end-users in the most effective way. “Our main challenge lays in the user experience”, explains Ragucci, “we have to be careful to provide the best information, at the right time and in clear and simple way”. “The information will be provided in the responders’ field of vision so it has to be shown in a non-invasive way, not to compromise the operations” she states.

The company is expecting to have a prototype of the Augmented Reality interface in two months after which it will be implemented on the device.  A key issue in this process will be to provide continuity and interaction with the other applications in the project, such the mobile app or the wearables, that are also going to be used by responders. Finally, the technologies will be tested in several in-field demonstration to ensure a good performance in a realistic scenario.

“Our project will represent a breakthrough in the application of Augmented Reality to disaster management”, concludes Sassi. Indeed, the I-REACT smart glasses application will allow for a faster and more coordinated response, which might be vital to save lives during emergencies. This will be in a year’s time and, until then, we will have to content ourselves with the real world.

Floods of Water, Floods of Data

In August 2002, after more than a week of heavy rains over a large part of Central Europe, the Elbe and Danube rivers overflowed with such force not seen in a lifetime. This significant flood disaster resulted in billions of Euros in damages and took the life of twelve people.

During that time, it was not only the river banks that burst. The European Commission was inundated with information provided by many local sources that had significant variability in quality and therefore created a difficult problem when trying to plan an effective emergency response.

After the 2002 catastrophe, the need for a trustworthy European-wide source for flood related information became necessary and therefore the European Commission (EC) moved forward with the creation of the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS). This sophisticated flood early warning system that produces flood forecasts was developed and tested at the EC’s science and knowledge service: the Join Research Centre. Today, EFAS effectively produces pan-European flood forecasts up to ten days in advance providing valuable warning to regional and local authorities about potential flood dangers.

The EFAS services however, can be further complemented and enhanced. One of the goals in our project is to collect as much data and information as possible to help improve the resolution in sensitive areas and speed-up the information turnaround. To achieve this, I-REACT will complement and enhance flood forecasts by adding data about historical flood disasters and use social media and crowdsourcing to provide up-to-date streaming information about flood situations and reduce the time to identifying a flood event.

But access to data is just the tip of the iceberg because getting access to the wanted sources is already a significant challenge. For example, the quality of service varies significantly when it comes to Open Data services accessibility. This means that supposedly open access services are not open to everyone in reality or data is inaccessible because the web services are down which, given the short timeframes to react to during emergency situations can have serious consequences to the success or failure of the planned response.

Locating the best and most appropriate data is also not trivial. The databases where wanted information are stored can change locations often without warning or disappear altogether. Other databases are maintained by a single person who may be unreachable when needed. Furthermore, European-wide analysis requires merging data from different countries working in a variety of languages. This requires further work as one needs to correct terms and nuances introduced by the creators and is often challenging. Finally, political decisions can produce a barrier restricting the access to good and useful data. While there are high level initiatives such as GEOSS and INSPIRE to overcome data access and data harmonization issues respectively, they advance much more slowly than technical advances.

An important goal for I-REACT is to access the best information to be used in our models and make it available to the emergency responders today and ready to ingest new information when it becomes available.

It is no easy feat to produce a European solution based on Big and Diverse Data dedicated to natural hazards. Such an ambitious goal can only be achieved through cooperation and by joining forces with partners having diverse and relevant expertise in dealing with such issues. And we have to remember that after all, the overcoming the difficulties are part of the fun.

Photo Source: Thinkstock / bestdesigns

What the past can teach us about future disasters

It was once said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This quote from the Spanish philosopher George Santayana intended to underline the importance of being aware of previous social and political events, but it can also be applied to a completely different matter: fighting against disasters as a consequence of natural hazards.

It is widely known that there are certain territories that are more disaster prone than others. Villages near to a river basin that have been flooded almost every year, small cities that had to be rescued from the fire flares more than once. And, in these places, every disaster comes with a lesson to learn. Gunter Zeug, our partner at TERRANEA knows this reality from experience. “My hometown lays on a river. Every few years the town was flooded. Even if all people knew it was coming and even if flood gates were closed and sandbags prepared, there were still entry points for the water and the damages were always high. After many years of planning, the government decided to build a wall along the river to protect the city. Also historic data was used to model today’s possible flood extents, and based on these results the wall was built.”

Unfortunately, sometimes this information only remains in the collective unconscious of locals. But if post-disaster knowledge was stored in a way that allows remote and quick access, it could be of enormous value. One way to do this is to save disaster related information in a central database.

In our project, we strongly believe in the importance of classifying this historical information to help improve risk mitigation in future events. Thus, TERRANEA, in collaboration with other partners, is building a historical disaster database that will represent an important source of information for the I-REACT system.

Building this kind of database at EU level presents several challenges posed by the important differences in the data collection systems and in the openness of the databases. “Ideally, events are recorded in a standardised manner and the data becomes open afterwards. However, the challenge we encounter is that the quality of the different data sources that we identified so far is varying and often there is no spatial information available but only information about affected towns or villages with no related coordinates”, says Zeug. In fact, some institutions have already studied the problem of building historical databases. “The EC/JRC conducted a study about the state of the art in the European Union. Their comparative analysis showed that methodologies for disaster related data collection and recording in Europe are heterogeneous and that the available national databases vary in their level of completeness and detail. IT systems vary in purpose, complexity and openness.” Being aware of these challenges, we can only roll up our sleeves and start to work.

As part of the I-REACT project we will start studying the countries that are represented in the consortium (Spain, UK, Italy, Finland) at a country-wide level. For those we will try collecting flood and forest fire data from different open sources for the past ten years since more recent events are usually better documented.

This database will help to identify hotspots for natural hazards, enhance forecast and nowcast models and improve the risk management of disasters. From the communication point of view, the web interface for exploring and accessing the catalogue of historical events will be a perfect tool to our partners in Scienseed that are already working in the identification of key stakeholders in sensitive communities.

Soon we will have our first results, and with the history in our hands, we will surely be more prepared for the future. Join us in this quest through time to fight disasters!

 

Image copyright W. Lang, Floods in Germany (Neuwied) 1920

A tweet can save lives

When Hurricane Katrina hit the American coast in 2005 Facebook was a newcomer to a still-to-be-developed world wide web, there was no Twitter to have news updates and less than 70% of citizens owned a mobile phone. Today, with more portable devices than citizens and an ever-constant interaction through social networks, the way we obtain and share information during crisis has drastically improved. This is proving very helpful in recent crisis like the 2013 super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines where Twitter was the single greatest information source for response and recovery efforts.

Social media is becoming essential for authorities to access vital information provided by citizens that would not be available otherwise, which improves the prevention and response to critical events. However, social network information is largely unstructured arising from the fact that everyone can be an information source. From eyewitnesses to emergency responders or NGOs, that can provide information from the ground, to mass media that amplifies the message, or even outsiders showing sympathy and emotional support. In this context, there are many factors that affect how the information flows, such as the use of hashtags which is very diverse and can sometimes hamper the identification of relevant data. Thus, it is necessary to analyse social media to place the pieces of the puzzle together.

The extraction and analysis of social media information is an important part within the I-REACT project. This information obtained from citizens will complement data coming from earth observations, UAVs, or emergency responders, among others, to provide real time data on floods, wildfires, earthquakes and other natural disasters. For this, Natural Language Processing (NLP) technologies developed by the I-REACT partner CELI, are being used to analyse big data streams from social media.

To do this, great amounts of information are initially collected from social networks by using searches on generic keywords such as “earthquake” or “flood”. Although this information will be unstructured, all or most of the emergency-related material will be gathered this way. Since this data can be compared to that of past events and to “regular” behaviours on social networks, a vital information will be generated: detecting if something unexpected is going on and spotting the occurrence of an emergency in real time.

This information will then be validated through linguistic analysis and machine learning techniques. Here, it is possible to select the emergency-related contents and identify useful information such as the type and location of event, the casualties, or the damage to infrastructures and services. In addition, we can also have information about the sentiment of the message, which is important to create panic maps and to prioritise actions on the ground. And once the event is concluded, the system keeps collecting data so that it can be continuously tested in spotting new emergencies from social media. This way, this tool will progressively learn and refine its ability to identify disasters.

Overall, social media analysis provides fast and relevant information during emergencies, highlighting the fact that these communication channels are not only changing the way we live and interact with each other, but also making every citizen an essential part in the fight against disasters.

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I-REACT: A collective effort to stop disasters

Fighting disasters is an immense effort that needs the cooperation of all of us. From citizens sending information through social networks, to scientists developing the latest technologies; from politicians working on prevention plans to civil protection helping on the ground. To this aim, the I-REACT consortium held a meeting at UNESCO (Paris) on 14-15 September 2016 with many different actors involved in preventing and managing disasters from different European countries and North America, to gather their expertise and knowledge towards generating the most efficient system to stop disasters.

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Planning the architecture of the I-REACT platform

I-REACT aims to go beyond the state of the art in the management of disasters. At the centre of the project, the I-REACTOR is conceived as a complex system to integrate and generate large amounts of data that will generate valuable information before, during and after emergencies.

Coordinating efforts is essential to design and set up such an ambitious platform in the reduced timeframe (3 years) of the project. That was the reason for the I-REACT team to organise a meeting in November 24/25, gathering representatives from the 20 partners at the firefighters premises in Barcelona.

At the meeting, the different element of the platform were discussed to make sure all efforts were aligned to put forward a novel system integration. After two intense days everything is in place to proceed with the subsequent developments of I-REACT. Ahead of us lie 30 more months of work towards the completion of the I-REACT project.

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I-REACT is presented at the COP22

Climate change is a global problem. For this reason, in 1992 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established.  Today 197 countries are Parties of this Convention, and they gather every year in international conferences to assess their progress in dealing with climate change.

In last year’s Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris, the first universal and legally binding global climate agreement was approved. This Paris climate agreement just entered into force on the 4th of November of 2016 and therefore, this year’s conference COP22 focuses on action and helping countries develop their national Adaptation Plans to fulfil the Paris agreement goals. The COP22 is taking place in Marrakech, Morocco, from the 7th to the 18th of this month.

At this meeting, the UNESCO pavilion in the civil society area of the conference venues, provides an opportunity to engage with different stakeholders to collectively address climate change. Since climate change is playing a major role in disasters, I-REACT is one of the projects  that UNESCO is presenting in Marrakech these days, to discuss the ideas and solutions offered by our project with experts, civil society representatives and DRR specialists.

 

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Our corporate video is now published!

Held every 13 October, the day celebrates how people and communities around the world are reducing their exposure to disasters and raising awareness about the importance of reining in the risks that they face. This year, the theme is Live To Tell: Raising Awareness, Reducing Mortality and the campaign seeks to create a wave of awareness about actions taken to reduce mortality around the world. Science and technology play a vital role in providing societies with the tools to anticipate and effectively tackle disasters. This is the aim of the I-REACT project, which is presented in the occasion of the International Day for Disaster Reduction with the launch of a promotional video!

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Disaster management leaders discuss in Paris how to improve prevention and reaction against extreme weather events

 

The International workshop “Increasing Resilience to Natural hazards through Information and Communication Technology”, organised on 14-15 September 2016 at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, will bring together policy-makers, emergency service providers and science and technology experts from different European countries to discuss key issues and deficiencies in disaster risk reduction.

The workshop is organised by UNESCO under the European Commission-funded innovation project “Improving Resilience to Emergencies through Advanced Cyber Technologies” (I-REACT), which aims to use new information and communication technologies to support the entire emergency management cycle in case of floods, wildfires, and other extreme weather events.

 

Extreme disasters such as fires and floods cause thousands of deaths and serious economic losses around the globe. In the past 10 years, according to the United Nations, extreme events cost up to 1.7 trillion of dollars and caused 0.7 million deaths. Besides, with the ongoing rise in global temperatures due to climate change, extreme weather events and their consequences will become more and more frequent.

In order to respond to this growing problem, the I-REACT consortium is holding an international workshop to exchange ideas, identify deficiencies and improve current systems for disaster risk reduction. The workshop will gather civil protections, emergency responders, policy-makers, emergency service providers and science and technology experts from different European countries.

The event, hosted by UNESCO, is a milestone of the innovation project I-REACT. The project brings together 20 partners from 9 European countries to develop an emergency management system leveraging on new information and communication technologies, crowdsourced data and technologies such as augmented reality.

The two-day workshop in Paris is built upon an interactive framework in which emergency responders and international advisors will interplay with I-REACT system developers, providing feedback on how the system should be conceived, designed and developed in order to better tackle the hazards at stakes – mainly floods and wildfires. In particular, the event is aimed at how to bridge the gap between innovative solutions and end users in the field of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) due to the lack of information, the inherent complexity of modern tools of and poor interoperability.

The workshop is consistent with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, which stresses the importance of using appropriate communications, geospatial and space-based technologies together with their related services to strengthen the use of mobile phone networks to support national measures for successful disaster risk communication, as appropriate and in accordance with national laws.

Fabrizio Dominici, I-REACT project coordinator stresses out that “fostering discussion between the different players in the emergency management process is essential to collectively increase the resilience of societies”. In this sense, “the workshop in Paris will serve to identify venues in which I-REACT will contribute to improving prediction and management of natural disasters in real scenarios such as those faced daily by authorities, civil protection services and first-responders”.

 

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I-REACT participates at the Community of Users

On the 23rd of June 2016, a side event on “High Impact Weather and Climate Induced Emergencies” was held as part of the Fourth meeting of the Community of Users on Safe, Secure and Resilient Societies. This event was organised under the umbrella of our project and in collaboration with ANYWHERE (Enhancing emergency management and response to extreme weather and climate events), which have been recently funded under the DRS-1-2015 call for crisis management to respond to extreme weather and climate events. This session was meant to stimulate exchanges and collaboration between these two projects, as well as fostering interaction with end users.

Both projects aim to leverage on technological advancements to increase the resilience of European citizens and assets to natural disasters. Although their approach differs in scope and technical implementation, both projects aim to provide comprehensive analysis systems to integrate multiple data sources and provide the fastest and most accurate information to all stakeholders involved in disaster prevention and management.

The event revolved around three main themes in which both projects have a crucial stake. A first discussion was held on the mechanisms to incorporate the real needs of first responders, risk managers and policy implementation organisms, in the management of high impact weather induced emergencies. At this session representatives of the Spanish administration commented on hydrometeorological Early Warning Systems, previous European project coordinators (DROUGHT-R&SPI and WMO/GWP projects) elaborated on drought management and policy making and UNESCO representatives discussed on the international cooperation in DRR issues. The second theme was centred on building a Community of Users in climate and weather induced emergencies. At this session, experiences from previous initiatives and current networks were discussed with the participation of JRC presenting the Community of Users of EFAS, the RISC-KIT project coordinator sharing experiences on the integration of stakeholders and end users of hydro-meteorological events in the coastal zone, and the online tool USHAHIDI was presented as a way to link citizens during disasters. The third theme was focused on the market uptake of the DRS solutions, potentially those developed as part of I-REACT and ANYWHERE projects. Discussion around this issue was held by representatives from the I-REACT partners AQUOBEX, specialised in technological solutions to floods, and geo-information specialists GEOVILLE, in addition to the ANYWHERE partner AIRBUS, that presented different technological solutions on DRR. 

Overall, the event fostered synergies and collaborations between past and present European projects, and end users, in order to integrate information and provide joint solutions to the management of disaster risks and crises of different kinds and it has been featured in the DRKMC Newsletter.