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European data to fight fires, floods and other disasters

Sweden is currently going through its worst drought in 74 years, which has caused dozens of wildfires across the country. Millions of euros worth of land have been destroyed. As of last Thursday, 19th of July, an area similar to Stockholm has been burnt. Over a hundred people have been evacuated, while others have been advised to stay indoors with the windows shut as to avoid breathing in the fumes. Although they may come as a surprise, these fires are in line with what researchers expect from climate change: more frequent and intense disasters.

Credit: ESA

To try to reduce the impact of these emergencies, the European Union founded Copernicus, the Earth Observation Programme, which looks down on our planet and its environment. Copernicus consists of a family of satellites called the Sentinels, as well as many in-situ sensors and measurement systems that are put at the disposal of the programme by the EU Member States. Through these satellites and sensors, it monitors and forecasts the state of the environment on land, sea and in the atmosphere.

 

Among the many services that Copernicus offers, the Emergency Management Service, or EMS, is in charge of providing information for emergency response in relation to different types of disasters. In the case of the Swedish fires, the European Forest Fires Information System has been activated. This system provides near real-time and historical information on forest fires. It comprises the full fire cycle, from supplying data on the pre-fire conditions to assessing post-fire damages. Apart from fires, EMS covers other disasters like floods, landslides or earthquakes, deliberate and accidental man-made disasters and also humanitarian ones. In addition, it provides information for prevention, preparedness, response and recovery activities.

 

All of this information is provided completely for free to the stakeholders involved in disaster prevention. Say there’s a flood, fire or earthquake. Public and private contractors take the data from Copernicus and they create maps for the general public and disaster response teams. Within the I-REACT project, GeoVille is the partner that processes and analyses the geo-data layers supplied by the Copernicus EMS. After retrieving the data, GeoVille harmonises the data and integrates ready-to-use maps into the I-REACT platform. The more data is processed the better, as it will allow users to make better-informed decisions. Data provided by EMS on disasters such as wildfires or floods helps prevent the loss of lives, property, and damages to the environment, contributing to build more resilient societies.

 

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I-REACT showed all its technologies against disasters at the flood simulation in Ipswich

Last week, our project completed another important milestone in Ipswich, one of the oldest cities in UK, and an area under the risk of severe floods that still remembers the “cold night of terror” of 1953 when a huge flood took the lives of 41 people. In this setting, our industrial partner Aquobex hosted a two-day meeting in which we were able to interact with different potential end-users and test all our technologies in a real scenario.

Wednesday 13th was a day to share information and learn from many experts from different areas that accepted our invitation. The interactions were really insightful and enabled us to identify gaps, opportunities, risks and potential improvements that might be made in our products.

Thursday 14th was a day for real action in a flood simulation exercise at the Orwell river in Ipswich. In collaboration with the Environment Agency and the Suffolk Fire & Rescue Service, we successfully tested together all our tools for the very first time. Among others, we showed fully functional mobile app, wearables and smart glasses for first responders, numerous information layers for decision-makers and the app for citizens. And we were not only able to test our system but also to successfully compare it with one of the best systems available in Europe: the UK Environment Agency’s system.

After two partial demonstrations (in Sava river and in Piedmont, Italy) this third demo has shown us that the system is ready and mature enough to represent a real and complete alternative to existing systems and is already showing fully developed innovations such as the social media engine or the crowdsource information.

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I-REACT tests its technology against floods in Ipswich

We are approaching the final stages of I-REACT, where we are going to test the technologies against disasters that we have developed in the last two years. Back in December, we organised our first in-field demonstration in collaboration with UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe and the Sava River Basin Commission. In March, we tested our technologies against floods in Piedmont, Italy. And finally, tomorrow we start our third practical demonstration of the I-REACT tools in Ipswich, UK.

Satellites, drones, augmented reality glasses, wearables, and our mobile application: these are the technologies that we will be presenting in Ipswich the 13th and 14th of June. It will be a two-day flood simulation exercise, in which we will put together all of our tools for the first time. The event is organised by our partner Aquobex, and it is supported by the Environment Agency and the Suffolk Fire & Rescue Service.

The drill will simulate the flood of the Orwell river, and it will serve as a practical exercise where the selected attendees will work together in this scenario. Among the participants will be representatives from the Environment Agency, the UK Flood Forecasting Centre, and County Councils, as well as insurance professionals

Floods constitute 47% of all weather-related disasters of the last 20 years. During this period, flooding has killed 157 000 people, affected 2.3 billion people, and meant an economic loss of $662 billion. Our technological tools provide protection agencies with services that offer real-time information before, during, and after the disaster situation. Furthermore, we have developed a solution that is highly modular, which ensures that the individual tools can be adopted separately by the emergency services, so they can integrate them with existing tools. These innovative cyber technologies can provide emergency responders with a more accurate situational awareness in flood-related emergencies, which improves their response time, and in turn helps them save lives.

Connection not lost: how the next generation of mobiles could help us against disasters

In the last 20 years we have witnessed a revolution in the use of mobile phones. At the beginning, with the first-generation technology (1G), we were only able to make calls. Then 2G came along, and with it, SMS. When 3G appeared,  data exchange became a must, and we started sharing WhatsApps, pictures and afterwards connection became so fast with 4G that allowed us to watch even HD videos on our phones wherever we were.

But all these technologies, no matter how fast they are, have one common issue: they rely heavily on the antennas that we see in top of buildings. These are the weak links in the chain that unites your mobile to the person or server you’re reaching. Your data goes from our phone directly to the antenna, that sends the message through a network of routers, nodes and repeaters until the message reaches the recipient. But during a disaster, these antennas could be damaged, leaving entire zones without service.

But what if we could structure the mobile network in a different way? That is one of the features of 5G, the next generation of mobile communication. It’s called device-to-device communication, and it enables devices like smartphones and wearables to send and receive data from other devices directly, without intermediates. Although 4G can already use this type of communication, it remains restricted to the devices used by emergency responders. 5G will bring device-to-device to the commercial devices for the first time.

During a disaster such as an earthquake, a flood or a fire, this could be crucial. Authorities could send alerts directly to the citizens. Or instructions for evacuation. Even receive requests for help from troubled citizens.  These vital messages could hop from device to device, reaching the citizens in the affected area, even if the mobile network is down. All that would be needed is a starting point, from where to send the initial message. They are called relay nodes, and they could be placed almost everywhere. They could be static, like the current mobile antennas. Or they could be placed in top of ambulances and other emergency vehicles, so when they reach the affected places, they can also gather information and send alerts. They could be even set up in the top of drones, to provide service to the people underneath, while scouting dangerous areas.

That’s why at I-REACT, our partners at Politecnico di Torino are researching how to adapt this new technology to the project, to develop a resilient, useful system that will be able to work in the years to come.

5G is near. Just in December 2017, the 3GPP approved a universal standard on this technology. And the common agreement among telecommunications providers is that the service will break into the market soon. So, stay tuned to this new technology that will allow you to stay tuned, even if a disaster occurs.

5 things to keep in mind when talking about disasters

If we had to reduce disasters to one word, it would be overwhelming. When a hurricane sweeps away entire houses, a flood seeps in through every corner of our life or a wildfire reduces to ashes an entire natural area, it can leave us speechless. But if we want to improve our reaction against disasters, we need to talk about them. At Scienseed, the I-REACT partner responsible for the project’s communication, we know that talking, writing and reporting about disasters is a sensible matter. Not only because it involves a lot of people in vulnerable situations. If we want communication to trigger a reaction against disasters, we have to keep some key factors in mind: the language we use to speak about disasters and hazards, the fact that they don’t affect everyone in the same way, the psychology behind understanding risks… And because we know checklists come in handy, we have elaborated a short list of 5 good practices to follow when talking about disasters.

#1: Hazards are natural, disasters are not

There’s no such thing as a natural disaster. There are extreme weather events, which are natural events that occur more or less frequently. They constitute a hazard, but they do not have to become disasters. We can prepare for them, putting preventive measures in place: using wetlands against floods, maintaining our forests to prevent wildfires, constructing resilient buildings against earthquakes… An extreme weather event turns into a disaster when it affects a community so bad, that it overcomes the preventive measures that were in place.

So if you are a journalist reporting about the effects of the last hurricane in a city, or about wildfires affecting a natural park, use extreme weather event or disaster, depending on the situation. Ditch “natural disaster” of your dictionary. We know it’s hard. We have grown used to the expression, but it’s time we change the way we see disasters. That begins by changing the way we talk about them.

#2 Diverse voices matter. Let them be heard.

Did you know that women are more likely to die during a disaster than men? And that the difference is wider depending on the social status? Disasters do not discriminate when they strike, but in many countries women’s roles imply looking after and protecting the people that surround them. This lowers their chances of surviving a disaster situation. For example, in rural Bangladesh women are expected to wear a sari, a traditional clothing that hinders running and swimming. Moreover, there is a social prejudice against women learning to swim. A social norm that becomes fatal in case of flooding.

Women are not the only social group that takes a heavy toll in a disaster situation. Children, people with disabilities, migrants…  We rarely see stories that put these groups on their focus. Not only are their stories worth telling. Highlighting these stories raises awareness around the situation these collectives face, so we can take actions tailored to them and help those that are most affected by disasters.

Srizki on Flickr

#3 Don’t just report on the figures. Put them in context.

The figures associated with a disaster are usually huge. The problem with big numbers is that we can easily get lost in them, without understanding their real meaning. A good strategy is to break the numbers down to a size that we are familiar with and relate them with more common contexts.

For example: just at the beginning of this year, the Thomas fire in California caused nearly $300 million in losses, destroyed more than 1000 buildings and burned more than 1100 square kilometres. Sure, these figures sound big. But how big are they really? If we say instead that the fire burned an area of the same size of the city of Rome and that the economical losses constitute nearly a 2% of the whole GPD of the Santa Barbara County. A 2% of the total market value of all final goods produced in the Santa Barbara County in a single year! In this way, we can grasp much better the magnitude of this fire.

#4 Cover disasters before and after, not just when they happen.

Usually disasters get the media attention when they happen. But once the disaster passes, media usually moves on to the next story, and the communities affected are left alone to heal. However, we can learn a lot from follow-up stories of a disaster. They can report good practices, so we can learn from past experiences to build more resilient societies. Like the lessons that Mexico has learned from past earthquakes, that is transforming the country into a more resilient, safer country. They can follow the international support, to see how the recovery efforts are being implemented. Or, if there has been no international effort, they can even raise awareness of the problem, triggering a chain of events that lead to external aid.

#5 Positive stories matter. Specially when we talk about disasters.

The grim figures in disasters news could make us think that disasters kill more people than before, but actually we are in a better situation than decades ago. Like the figure below shows, in the last 100 years, the number of victims in disasters has decreased drastically. These numbers show us that we are making progress when facing disasters.

Annual death rate due to disasters. Source: Our world in data.

Also, research has shown that doom messages lead to inaction. So, if we want our words to turn into action, a positive focus in our stories can really make a difference.

When it comes to disasters, we are facing a communication challenge that can shape our future. In the years to come, climate change is going to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. We must convey this threat properly, in ways that leave us not overwhelmed, but ready to react and build more resilient societies against disasters.

“Don’t just scare us, tell us what we can do!”

Last year, Hurricane Harvey caused $100 billion in losses. The California fires, $13 billion. The Yangtze river flood, $7.5 billion. In 2017, disasters accounted for more than $350 billion dollars in losses worldwide. If we do nothing about it, climate change will certainly raise these figures in the future. Fortunately, there’s a lot we can do.

We have talked before about software that can help emergency services take the best decision possible, satellites that provide vital information to evaluate the damage done after a wildfire or Augmented Reality to help emergency responders. But today we wanted to talk about the measures we can take to prevent the disaster from happening in the first place. To do that, we spoke with John Alexander, founder of Aquobex, one of the partners at I-REACT. The company offers tailored preventive solutions against floods to businesses and insurance companies. They have extensive experience in the business, that’s why they are in charge of organising the exploitation activities.  And, as they well know, prevention can save not only lives, but also a lot of money.

“If you think of floods, even having one or two inches of water into your house has an enormous cost, that oscillates usually between 15000 and 25000 pounds.”, points out Mr Alexander. Prevention measures, like placing barriers against floods, redirecting the water flow or maintaining floodplains can avoid the disaster in the first place. “The figures we are talking about are 8 to 1 benefit.” That means that every euro we put into this preventive actions save us 8 euros in future losses. But sadly, this head-on approach is far from common. “People usually get insurance and take no further actions. But if we do not put preventive measures in place, insurance is not enough. We are still at risk”, clarifies Mr Alexander. “This is a dangerous behaviour, and we need to address that. We need to reward good behaviour: first put preventive measures in place, and then get insurance.”

If a disaster like a flood can flip our lives upside-down, picture how critical it can be for businesses. “There was this hotel in UK that flooded twice in three years.”, recalls Mr. Alexander. “The direct loss of the flood was 500 000 pounds, but they had a ‘business continuity insurance’. This means that the insurance company had to pay for the losses caused by the discontinuity of the business. So they paid 8 million pounds in the first year, and 5 million the second time it flooded.” In cases like this one, preventive measures could have benefited everyone involved: the disaster would have had less impact and the recovery time would have been shorter. Even for insurance companies, offering preventive measures among their plans can be beneficial, as they end up paying less money.

“Of course, what we cannot do is reduce the disaster risk to zero. That’s impossible. There’s always residual risk”, explains Mr Alexander, “What we speak about with insurance companies is that we reduce the disaster risk to its lowest economical value”. To offer this, technologies can help us be as protected against disasters as possible. And what’s more important, they can provide emergency services with the resources they need. Careful analysis of historical data can provide us detailed risk maps of areas, that can be used to design tailored preventive measures. Early warning systems can help emergency services and insurance companies alert citizens and clients if there’s a disaster coming, so they can be prepared. “As they told me once in Mauritius ‘We live in an island. If you tell us there’s a problem, you have to give us a solution: we have nowhere to run. Don’t just scare us, tell us what we can do!’”, details Mr Alexander. “And I think that is the best aspect of I-REACT. Not only do we alert of the disaster. We provide the tools you need to face it.”

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I-REACT tests for the first time its technology against floods in Piedmont

A year and a half ago, the region of Piedmont suffered a flood that caused €550 million losses. Back in 1994, another flood devastated the region, killing 70 people and displacing more than 2000. To improve the response against floods like these, we have been developing a set of technologies for emergency responders, citizens and decision makers that will be put to the test for the first time in the Region of Piedmont.  This will be done within a three-day flood simulation exercise that the European Consortium APELL – EUROMODEX has organised in the city of Alessandria, at the core of the Region of Piedmont.

The technological tools we have developed provide protection agencies with services that offer real-time information before, during and after the disaster situation. We integrate and models data coming from European monitoring systems like satellite observations, historical information and weather forecasts, and combine them with data gathered by our new technologies: a mobile app, a wearable, augmented reality glasses and a social media analysis tool, that monitors Twitter to gather real-time information on the disaster situation.

During the three-day drill, international emergency services coming from France, Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg will simulate 25 different rescue scenarios, with a team of volunteers that will perform as families trapped by the rising water levels, people injured in the flood or citizens in need of displacement. The volunteers will test the I-REACT app, that allows them to report real-time information that can be visualized at the emergency coordination services about the flood situation, like geolocation photos.

The rescue teams will be coordinated by the “Settore Protezione Civile e Sistema Antincendi Boschivi” of the Piedmont Region, that will test for the first time our visualisation software. Thanks to this software, the experts at the control room will be able to track the position of the people affected by floods, communicate with them and see the information reported by them, shortening the response time and providing the emergency services with crucial information that will help them take the best decision possible.

When they are fully developed and tested in several drills like this one, we aspire for our technologies to be adopted among the European emergency services. Innovative cyber technologies, like the ones we propose, can provide a more accurate situational awareness and response in flood related emergencies, which improves the response of the European emergency services to floods, and help them save lives.

Choose wisely: how computers can help us take better decisions in a disaster situation

Making choices is hard. Our brain is constantly weighing options in our everyday life: from light choices (what should I wear today?) to hard ones (should I change my professional career?). If this can get stressing in our daily context, imagine the pressure that emergency services feel under a disaster situation: firefighters going into a burning building, response teams rescuing people trapped at their homes in a flood, or removing the debris after an earthquake to save the people trapped underneath. In situations like these, every second counts, and every decision—or lack of it—can have fatal consequences.

To relieve some of this pressure and ensure a prompt and adequate response against disasters, emergency services follow a clear chain of command: the responders are in the ground of a disaster, while the Emergency Coordination Centres give them the directions they need to follow. They evaluate the situation, see the resources at hand and take decisions that will affect even thousands of people. If you were in their position, you would witness how every little help counts. And technology can help a great deal. That is why our partners at Answare are designing a system that will assist Emergency Coordination Centres in their decision-making process: the Decision Support System (DSS).

This software will help the Emergency Coordination Centres as soon as an upcoming emergency is detected. Thanks to the global information provided by the I-REACTOR—our computing service that processes weather predictions for the next 24 hours, emergency services reports, Copernicus EMS data, fire and flood risk maps, among others—, the I-REACT DSS will alert the Coordination Centres of potential disaster situations. Once the decision-makers at the Centre have verified this information, they can begin the arrangements for a potential emergency: issue public alerts, start preparing the responders… Buying some extra time to prepare for the emergency.

As soon as the water levels begin to rise, the storm hits the city, or the fire starts spreading, the access to real-time information becomes crucial for the Emergency Coordination Centres. While other services from I-REACT will offer emergency services all the available information (reports from first responders, geolocalisation or UAV observations, amongst many other services), the Decision Support System will also suggest tailored lines of action. Each Coordination Centre has carefully designed Action Plans, that arise from years of in-field experience and knowledge of the geographical area in which they act. The I-REACT DSS is able to integrate these protocols, to suggest the decision makers different options at their hands, based on the real-time updates and their Action Plans, so they can take best-informed decisions.

Emergency services face some of the toughest choices anyone can take. Our DSS cannot take the decisions for them, but it certainly will be of great assistance for those that work to keep us safe, and help them save lives in difficult situations.

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What satellites can show us from the California fires

42  people killed, 145 hurt and more than 90 000 people evacuated. Those are the numbers of people affected by the wildfires that scorched the state of California last October. These fires destroyed more than 8500 structures, causing an estimated economic loss of 3.3 billion dollars. But these are only the direct costs. A part of California’s economy relies in wine production and the vineyards associated, some of which have burnt.

Up until last week, California was suffering also the Thomas fire in the area of Ventura, a wildfire that was active for more than a month, and is now considered the biggest wildfire in California’s history.  As of now, the economic impact that these wildfires will have in the future remains incalculable.

Figures as gigantic as these ones usually escape our comprehension. To understand the magnitude of these disasters, we can take a step back and try to see the big picture. To help us in this task, we can rely in satellite images. We have talked before about how satellites can help us tackling disasters, but now, thanks to the efforts of our colleagues at Terranea, we are able to show you how we can use Sentinel-2 imagery to estimate the area affected by wildfires.

Seeing through smoke

Image taken in the optical band
Image taken in the shortwave-infrared band

Almost half of the Earth’s atmosphere is covered by clouds all the time, so if we want to keep surveillance of a wildfire from space, we must be able to peek through the clouds and smoke.

Sentinel-2 satellites are equipped with a high-resolution multispectral imager. This means that they can take the same photo in different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, from the visible (the image on the left, very similar to what you would see with your naked eye) to the shortwave-infrared (image on the right). This last one is the one that allows us to have a glance through the smoke, and spot the active fires underneath: the orange lights that you can see in the photo are the fires that were active the 12 of October.

Estimating the impact: before and after

Image taken before the fires
Image taken after the fires

The technology on board Sentinel-2 is able to identify the different types of land and vegetation underneath: shrubland, evergreen forest, pastures, vineyards… You name it, Sentinel-2 is able to identify it, like an avid landscaper. This allows us to make a before and after comparison —the dark areas that you see in the photos above are the areas burned by wildfires. Our colleagues at Terranea develop workflows to process the data fully automatically and compose the map that you can see below.

Image showing the area afected by wildfires

A total of 8.45 square kilometers of vineyards were burnt in the Napa Valley in October. That’s three times the area of Hyde Park, in London. In comparison, the Thomas fire that is currently active in California has been estimated to have burned more than 1000 square kilometers in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, affecting almost 1000 buildings, and forcing 41200 people to evacuate. The types of land cover affected is still to be determined, but the Copernicus satellites will allow us to better estimate the impact of these fires, and study their progress, so we can be best equipped the next time it happens.

I-REACT closes 2017 with two workshops and welcomes 2018 with a new one on ICT and disaster management

This last month has been a busy one for I-REACT. We completed the first half of the project, and presented our technology for the first time ever. But we haven’t stop there. This month we also organised two workshops: one in Boston, USA, and the other one in Incheon, South Korea.

In them, we were able to gather selected groups of professionals to discuss how modern technologies can be integrated in the fight against disasters, and the different solutions we are developing. Just so you do not miss anything, here is our brief summary of the two workshops:

I-TENDER

The I-TENDER workshop focused on how public safety services can benefit from the use of technology to respond against disasters. Claudio Rossi presented a Keynote on I-REACT project, while the other 9 presentations presented papers on how to use data analysis to filter relevant information on a disaster situation; how positioning techniques can improve the response and safety of rescue parties and emergency responders; and how technology helps in the deployment of public-safety and emergency networks.

The workshop took part in Incheon, South Korea, on December 12 and was hosted within the ACM CoNext Conference. A list of all the papers presented at the workshop can be found here, and more information on the workshop can be consulted here.

DSEM

The Data Science for Emergency Management (DSEM) was centered on the role of Big Data and Data Science in the natural hazard management area.

The keynote speaker, Prof. Carlos Castillo, presented an overview about the current state of the art on the Big Crisis Data topic and provided interesting insights on a better exploitation of crowdsourcing solutions. The DSEM workshop featured papers on novel and innovative solutions for emergency management: social media and unstructured data, crowdsourcing and user feedback, forecasting models, decision support systems, and resource allocation and crowd control during emergencies.

The workshop was held on December 11, 2017 in Boston, USA, co-located with the 2017 IEEE International Conference on Big Data. A list of all the papers presented at the workshop can be found here, and more information on the workshop can be consulted here.

We close this 2017 with a lot of activity,but we are not stopping here. This 2018 we are organizing a workshop within the ISCRAM 2018, the 15th International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management. The workshop will be in May, but the deadline for submitting your paper is on January 15, so send it now!