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!

Two European satellites to protect us all

ESA–Pierre Carril

Satellites do much more than to offer us astonishing photographs of space. Some of them, like the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellites, save lives. This ESA’s mission monitors the Earth day and night: it has witnessed the birth of a gigantic iceberg, helped locating the seismic fault in a Sea earthquake; or monitored glaciers in the Alps to help us understand how landslides work and helping us fight against disasters. It also provides access to remote areas, where we can’t place sensors. And the microwave radar imaging technology on board of Sentinel-1 allows scientists to have a peek of the ground through the clouds, even on the darkest nights.

The Sentinel-1 images not only allow us to have eyes in disasters that occur in remote zones, it gathers a global view of the state of the disaster with a great amount of detail. In its higher definition mode, it provides a 5 meter resolution image. The mission is composed by two satellites, which guarantees a great response speed: at European latitudes it revisits the same area about every three days. This is why this never sleeping sentry is so interesting for our project and why we needed the efforts of our partners from the Remote Sensing Research group of TU Wien. Thanks to them we will be able to incorporate the Sentinel-1 radar images into our system.

All this activity generates up to 3 Terabytes every 24 hours. This is the equivalent of creating 40 high definition movies… each day! Processing all this information can’t be done in a regular laptop. It requires the use of a supercomputer. The Remote Sensing Research group uses a supercomputerthe Vienna Scientific Clusterto analyse the Sentinel-1 data. Thanks to the computational power of this supercomputer, they are able to compare the latest Sentinel-1 images to all past data, that form a picture of a “normal looking” Earth. This allows them to create change maps that depict flooding, deforestation and other such drastic events.

Credit: ESA

But surprisingly, this daily amount of new information is not the one thing that poses the heaviest toll for computers. Establishing this “normal looking” Earth picture isn’t as easy as it sounds. Just think on the view you have through a window in your home: it changes a lot from spring through winter and from one year to another. What constitutes normal and what is out of line? To account for changes in the terrain, and the different looks that the Earth offers throughout the year, our colleagues at TU Wien are using the data already obtained by the Sentinel-1 in the past 3 years and the data obtained by the ENVISAT satellite, a past mission that went on between 2002 and 2012. Together, they constitute 1000 TB of images, more than 13000 high resolution movies. That’s certainly a lot of Netflix to catch up, so no wonder that a supercomputer is needed for analysing this huge database automatically.

Only a decade ago, this kind of technology seemed like science fiction. Today, we are integrating satellites, supercomputers and many other cyber-technologies to fight against disasters.

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I-REACT celebrates the first in-field demonstration at the Sava River basin

Augmented Reality Glasses

Over the last 5 years, Western Balkans have been severely hit by extreme flooding events. Major floods in 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2015 affected hundreds of thousands of people, causing extensive damage and a high casualty toll.

We chose this region to hold the first demonstration of our disaster management tool. In this way, we wanted to show how it can facilitate the work of authorities and civil protection in the fight against floods, but also highlight how it can aid in the coordination of different countries when a disaster hits more than one nation.

Over the three days of the workshop, the participants worked together in a simulated scenario based on the May 2014 historical Sava River flood. This flood killed 79 people, affected 2.6 million people and caused 3.8 million € in damages and losses across the Sava River Basin. The workshop linked the management of these events to the different functionalities of the I-REACT system, showing how technology can play a crucial role in the fight against disasters.

In the in-field demo of I-REACT, participants could test the crowdsourcing functionalities of the mobile app. They also tested different technologies specially devised for first responders: augmented reality glasses to provide them with live information, or a wearable that allows for detailed geolocalization.

The simulation of a control room demonstrated how a great variety of data coming from different sources, and serving different purposes, could be easily visualised by authorities. These easy visualization helps authorities making decisions in the event of an emergency.

Overall, the demo was a success. It highlighted the potential of an integration tool for disaster management, while helping authorities and responders both to save time and make more informed decisions when all variables are at play. Additionally, the I-REACT team gathered important feedback from professionals. Together with the information that we obtained in Paris, this will help us fine-tune the system and facilitate the use and integration of I-REACT within different operational procedures.

The next demonstration of our system will follow to continue bringing I-REACT closer to users and to ultimately improve future response to floods, and other disasters, mitigating their impact and help saving lives.

I-REACT group photo

The workshop was organised thanks to the support of the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe in collaboration with the Sava River Basin Commission and other technical partners such as Deltares, the Royal Haskoning DHV from the Netherlands, the CIMA Research Foundation and ISMB (Instituto Superiore Mario Boella) from Italy.

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I-REACT successfully completes the first half of the project

After 18 months of hard work the I-REACT team gathered in Torino to attend the Mid-Term review meeting and show for the first time a fully functional system ready to be tested in the management of disasters.

At the meeting, the I-REACT partners demonstrated that most of the work in data integration and modelling as well as in the construction of the big data architecture is nearly completed and remains be fine-tuned in the coming months. The same is true for the different technologies that will be provided to end-users, including the I-REACT web interface, the smart glasses or the mobile app.

All these technologies were tested in a practical demonstration were the team was split in 3 groups acting as first responders, citizens and decision makers. This way, the main crowdsourcing functionalities were tested including the in-field reporting through the mobile app, the validation of reports and sending of warnings from the control room or the social media analysis were tested.

After this small test, the work with end-users is starting as part of the demonstration and validation activities that aim to bring the I-REACT system closer to real-case scenarios. Five demonstrations are planned during the next 18 months, the first of which will be held in Zagreb on December 6th/8th together with the Sava River Commission to demonstrate the potential of I-REACT in the management of floods.

Finally, at the meeting the initial work in the exploitation of the project was presented with different business strategies to bring I-REACT to the market for the public and private sector. In addition, the communication and dissemination strategy showed to be succeeding in building of an important stakeholder community around the project.

Overall, EU Commission representative and two external reviewers assessed the activities and confirmed the high performance of I-REACT. Next week, I-REACT will pass another important test with the first end-user demonstration on its way towards generating the most efficient tool for disaster management in Europe.

Five nuggets of wisdom from emergency responders

I-REACT is an ambitious project. It relies on several technologies that must be implemented together, and that must be able to work properly, in a timely manner and under pressing circumstances. But these are only some of the technical difficulties. We face another challenge: the I-REACT system (and its app) must be easily adopted by citizens, emergency responders and decision makers across Europe. That’s why being in contact with emergency responders and civil protection agencies from the first moment is crucial for the project. Having their feedback on what their needs are is really important, so we can develop tools that are both useful and easy to use.

To gather this feedback, I-REACT relies on the experience of CSI Piemonte, and organization that has been working very closely with those who handle risks for more than 25 years. Workshops and face to face gatherings are one of the best ways to obtain information from experts. So a year ago we organized a meeting with emergency responders and other stakeholders.

At this meeting, we shared coffees with emergency responders, see them discuss together, exchange experiences… and here is what we have learnt from them, that we have been taking into account in the last year of design: their five nuggets of wisdom.

Technology is important… but implementation is key

Technology is a good ally in fighting disasters, but—as it happens with every technology—adopting new tools will have an impact on the job organization. Here’s when those coffees with emergency responders pay off: they let us peek behind the curtain, to see what impact our technologies will have on their day to day work.

Location, location, location!

This old real estate agents’ mantra can be applied also to emergency responders. We asked them about data visualization and we found that maps are the most useful tools: risk maps and road maps, to design effective strategies. We are visual beings. Hundreds of years of evolution have wired our brains to identify patterns and interpret visual information quickly. So having all the information available drawn into a map seems a perfect way to assess the situation.

All roads lead to Rome…

A while ago, we relied on very few communication channels: newspapers, TV and radio. Nowadays we have so many (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp,), that is hard to keep track. And there is a clear generational gap in the use of these channels: while people in their 40s onward seem to rely more on traditional channels, people under 30 use social media as their main source of information. So it is important for authorities to understand and use these new channels available, as well as the old ones.

… but some are faster than others

Over 2.5 billion people use social media channels worldwide. While this number rises every year, it is not the only advantage that social media can provide in an emergency. Social media users consume and provide real-time information, which is extremely useful for emergency responders. This communication happens almost instantly, and can happen directly between citizens and authorities, which can be a real life-saver when fighting against disasters.

Internet bots and disasters: not a good mix

In the era of fake news, where bots play on hot trends in social media, we must be able to distinguish between noise and signal. We already know that citizens can provide a lot of useful information during an emergency, but how do we separate wheat from chaff? Linguistic analysis and geolocalization will serve as preliminary sorting tools, but final decision will require the expertise of human eyes.

I-REACT aims to be emergency-responders’ eyes and hands on the ground, but we thought that the first step should be to pick their brain. This provided insights that we didn’t know before. Do you have any other insight that might be helpful? Please let us know in the comments!