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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!

Forecasting more than just weather

“Today we can expect a 50% chance of rain…” How many times have you heard these words on the TV weather forecast? Have you ever wondered why weather-people talk about percentages? Rain, winds, temperatures… all these phenomena come with their number attached: the chance they might occur. This is the result of complex mathematical formulas of the physics behind the meteorological processes, inserted in computational models that forecasters use to predict the way weather will behave.

Since all weather forecasts models are chaotic, tiny variations on the parameters on those models lead to different results of the forecasts. These results imply different scenarios in the real life: it may rain cats and dogs, it may be a gentle rain or it may not even rain at all, but how likely is each option? In the case of rain, they combine two different factors: the confidence that it will rain someplace in the forecast area, and the percentage of that area that will receive rain if it rains. This is what meteorologist call probability of precipitation.

And, if this is important for your day-to-day forecast (so you know whether to take your umbrella or your sunglasses), imagine how important it is when we talk about extreme weather-related disasters and how to prevent them. Emergency responders and decision makers need to have at their tables all the different possible scenarios and know how likely is each one of them to happen, so they can take the best possible decisions. That is why at I-REACT we are including weather-related data and models into our I-REACTOR, the system that will integrate this information altogether with satellite and UAVs images, crowdsourced information and many other data sources and technologies, to provide detailed disaster risk maps for Europe.

Forecasting extreme events (like high levels of precipitations or strong winds) is key for preventing disasters. And to do this, special forecasts, different from the weather forecasts you see on TV, must be designed. Our colleagues at the Finnish Meteorological Institute are in charge of providing the extreme weather-related data. This means that they feed different extreme weather scenarios to the system, each one of them accompanied by a number: the chance that that particular scenario may happen. By doing so, FMI is able to provide different thresholds for risks: a probability that may seem tiny for normal events can be of huge importance when associated with extreme weather events.

Instead of delivering a unique weather prediction, FMI runs several simulations with slightly different initial conditions, so we can know the different scenarios and know how likely is each one of them to happen. This is called the Ensemble method. To calculate these different scenarios, FMI uses complex numerical models that run on supercomputers. The accuracy of those models depends highly on the initial conditions: the starting points of the simulation, consisting on real data taken from satellite images, meteorological stations and other sources.

To provide the most reliable results, FMI is feeding their models the best available data at the moment: high resolution maps gathered from weather systems across Europe, with a resolution down to 7 kilometres on a European scale, and a 3 Km resolution on a national scale. a much higher resolution in comparison with the usual map in you TV weather forecast which resolutions usually goes down to 20 km.

By combining better resolution maps and more accurate probabilities for extreme events, I-REACT will be of great help in saving lives thanks to cutting-edge technological advances. Against disasters, we have a fighting chance. And now, we are better at calculating these chances.

Citizens with drones can help fighting natural disasters

It was not by chance that drones became the gadget of the year in 2014. By then, thousands of units were being sold worldwide with prices ranging 30€ to 30,000€ and big electronic retailers were reporting huge surges in sales. Now, a few years down the line, this trend has continued in the rise and drones are a relatively common leisure for taking pictures and shooting impressive aerial videos. However, did you know they can also be used to fight disasters?

After Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, an unprecedented number of drones patrolled the skies to aid in the humanitarian response. Thanks to this, a much rapid mapping of the affected areas was possible, which was essential to setting up humanitarian base camps, detecting the most affected communities, locating victims in need of help, and assessing the state of infrastructures for transportation, among others.

The importance of drones in disasters is that they provide a quick view from above of the affected zone. For decades, this information was only obtainable using planes for aerial photos, or satellites, which have a number of limitations including cost, data sharing restrictions, cloud cover, and the time needed to acquire images. In contrast, UAVs can provide a bird’s eye perspective quickly, if people are at site, and at a far higher resolution and at much lower cost.

An additional key aspect is that drones can also offer a view that is not perpendicular to the ground. For instance, when assessing damage after the disaster, whereas satellite vision allows seeing if a building has a roof but not if it has four walls, oblique vision from drones can answer this question and many others that require more three-dimensional information.

But overall, the biggest advantage is that, unlike satellites, citizens can own UAVs and this means that disaster-affected communities can participate in response to a crisis. Now, after major disasters such as the Philippines typhoon, but also the Haiti earthquake, these countries have taken the lead in involving citizens and there is a growing number of grassroots initiatives to teach local people to operate their own drones in emergencies.

At the I-REACT project we believe in the potential of citizen participation in disaster response at European level and we are developing an app that will allow connecting emergency professionals and drone users. Our partner AnsuR is leading this task to allow decision makers at control centres to request and conduct flights over affected areas, both from amateur and professional drones, in case of floods, fires and extreme weather events. This ways, they will be able to assess and ensure the relevance of the images while drones are still flying.

In order facilitate the engagement of volunteers from local areas, AnsuR is building a database for drone volunteers who potentially can be involved in the event of an emergency in their area of operation, and creating a efficient system for communicating the images they capture. This way, any European citizen from local communities can become an integral part of the fight against disasters, improving rescue operations and protecting their communities.

If you own a drone and would like to contribute, drop us a line and join us in quest for a more resilient future!

Predicting the next heatwave

This year organisers at Royal Ascot horse races announced that they are considering relaxing the strict dress code for the first time in history. And this is because Europe is scorching. This summer, from London to Siberia, stifling heatwaves are razing across the continent in an unprecedented fashion. And this summer is not the exception. Due to climate Change, heatwaves are becoming more and more frequent. And, even if they have been considered a minor hazard that do not affect infrastructures as much as floods, fires or earthquakes, they are still heavily impacting on the population.

Because, although Royal Ascot’s may seem like a funny anecdote, only in UK, this year there were 907 deaths more than the average after the mercury rose to 38.1c. This shows how problematic heatwaves can get, especially for vulnerable sections of the population, such as children, pregnant women or the elderly. And besides their effect in public health, their impact on agriculture can be also devastating as new research points out that they will damage crops, worsening the global food crisis.

But, what can be done to overcome the effects of these waves of extreme temperatures?

To anticipate to any disaster, the best thing you can have at hand is a good prediction. And you may lay aside crystal balls and tarot cards. Or hunches. There are scientific, accurate, and real tools to succeed: the so-called risk models.

Take temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, and rainfall and relate them with some mathematics and you will be able to unravel the risk of a wildfire. Or combine them with a terrain elevation model, soil properties and drainage directions to make your own flood risk model to be prepared when the water rises after the next perfect storm. For heatwaves, maximum temperature is the parameter you need to have under the radar.

Put in this way it could sound straightforward, but creating a risk model is a huge scientific challenge. It takes time to select the correct parameters and design the proper equations that define the process you want to understand to the limit of prediction. Sometimes there are pre-existing models available and tuning them a little bit is easier, as you can add small adjustments and validate them with as much data as you can find. Or you can even be luckier and leverage upon open risk model services where you can extract processed risk information.

In I-REACT we are combining all these options for the most common hazards: floods and fires. We are extracting data from European services (EFAS and EFFIS) and adapting and improving different pre-existing models for these hazards. But for heatwaves we need a brand new solution combining models in a decision-support system. Because, although fires and floods have been studied for several years, heatwaves are the new kid on the block of hazards and there is no European-wide available service or model for this phenomenon. That’s why our partners at Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK) are working on one of the first European-wide heatwaves geospatial risk maps. And novelty always comes with extra challenges: combining 32 years of temperature data with high resolution 14 days forecast for real-time emergency surveillance.

It is expected that by the end of the year, we will have up-and-running our top-notch geospatial risk models for fires, floods and heatwaves. Altogether, they will be a the most complete tool to date to anticipate these hazards.

Until then, please, follow the common instructions: drink water frequently, restrict activities in the open air to morning and evening, when possible remain in the shade and find something fresh that suits you for the horse’s races.

 

The I-REACT consortium successfully concludes the First Year Review

We are one year closer to having the most advanced technological solution to prevent and fight disasters. This was the impression after the meeting held at the Finnish Meteorological Institute premises, on the 22nd and 23rd of June. At the event, the 20 partners of the I-REACT consortium reviewed the progress of the work and agreed on the next steps towards the finalisation of a emergency management system to be validated in real scenarios next year.

At the moment, the project is deeply immersed in the implementation phase, with intense activity in the three technical work packages that are the core of I-REACT. As part of the initial effort, the project has been actively working on the integration of existing data sources and systems related to natural hazards, in particular floods and fires, to fuel the overall system with useful information. These data sources includes existing ones such as Copernicus or local EMS as well as the Sentinell-1 satellite, whereas other information is currently being generated, such as the I-REACT historical disaster database. 

Discussion around the creation of the historical disaster database led by Gunter Zeug (Terranea).

Sequentially, several partners are working on how to model these data to extract additional valuable information, which include climate change and weather forecast models or social media analysis. Finally, this information will be channelled and made available to end-users thorugh serveral technologies including a decision support system, a web interface, or, remarkably, a wearable for which the first prototype is available.

Presentation of the I-REACT wearable prototype by Srdjan Tadic (Bitgear).

Overall, the progress of the work has been very successful and the increasingly stong consortium is facing the coming efforts with the confidence that an effective solution to disasters will be market-ready in less than 2 years time.

Group photo of the I-REACT team at the Finnish Meteorological Institute premises.

The latest wearable technology to help rescue teams

A trend in technology is the one that does its job without you even noticing. This is the basis of wearables, whose ever expanding list of application ranges from capturing body parameters to sleep quality. But wearables are now much more than just leisure gadgets: their ability to report positioning and sense the environment can bring about a revolution to many professional fields. This is especially true for disaster response.

Although the forefather of wearable technology is a miniature Chinese abacus ring from the XVII th century used for mathematical calculations, the first popular reference are wristwatches. Since the early XX century they dominated the market and evolved into different uses until they were progressively replaced by cellphones and other more recent wearables. Consumer market is flooded with devices equipped with different sensors for activity tracking, heart rate or oxygen level monitoring. There are literally thousands of very low-cost fitness, health or wellness-oriented wearable devices. But also, among the mainstream markets there are various medical and assisted living devices for continuous health monitoring. Wearable technology thus helps the growing number of patients overloading hospitals and medical centers, while increasing their life quality.

Today the most distinctive feature of wearable technologies is the ability of exchanging data without human intervention thanks to electronic sensors and new firmware/software. This passive gathering of data is particularly crucial in the event of an emergency where the capacity of professionals for acting is very limited by time. In this scenario, capturing information about the status of the environment (e.g. temperature, air quality etc.) and of the rescue teams (location, activity, vital signs etc.) can be critical.

Wearables are commonly used in disaster response with examples like the wristband of Morphix technologies for the detection of hazardous chemicals, among others. However, the technology is not exploited in its full potential. As part of I-REACT, the Serbian company Bitgear is in charge of the development of a wearable for first responders that will be the first device applied to disasters with both positioning and sensing capabilities.

3D representation of the I-REACT wearable

The advanced navigation technology provides a much more accurate position than regular GPS, that can have high deviations of accuracy and large positioning errors in urban environments. For this, Bitgear is using a multi-constellation receiver which combines raw satellite navigation data not only from American GPS but from the European Galileo/EGNOS and Russian GLONASS. The integration of different sources with the processing of raw data through algorithms and coupling with the inertial sensors (INS) provides a much reliable positioning than any portable device used in disasters nowadays. Bitgear is also working towards expanding the initial device concept to state-of-the art real time location system (RTLS) that will combine Ultra-wide band radio (UWB) to provide indoor positioning of the rescue teams at critical situations.

The functionality of environmental sensing will be used for the detection of risky scenarios for first responders. For instance, if the oxygen level drops only four percentage points from the standard level (21%), this can impair coordination and judgement of the rescue teams. Thus, anticipating this environmental changes is essential. Also, by assessing the drops in oxygen levels we can obtain another relevant information as they might indirectly indicate the increase of toxic gasses. Thus, with the I-REACT wearable, rescue teams will know when they need to wear masks when necessary to prevent poisoning.

The I-REACT wearables will be connected via low-energy bluetooth to the mobile app developed in the context of the project. This way, the sensing and positioning will be sent to the big data structure and readily provided to decision makers at control centres.

For the implementation of this technology there are a number of challenges. On the technical side, the design of electronic devices for harsh environments, such as those found in emergencies, is always complex and requires good materials and insulation. Another challenge is posed by the proximity to the human body since it absorbs electromagnetic energy, which degrades the signal of the device. So the materials, the position of the antenna, the topology of the electronics have to be tweaked. Finally, one of the most important issues is to build the smallest possible device to avoid overloading of responders that are already forced to carry many gadgets. To this end the miniaturisation process will be very centred in the efficient placement of oxygen sensors, as these are usually very bulky, and minimization of obstruction of radio signals.

To date, different functional wearable prototypes have been produced and they are in the process of performance evaluation and environmental testing. Also, different options for boxing are under development. All in all, the device should be ready by the end of this year.

The application of wearables to the I-REACT project holds the promise of a safer and more effective coordination of rescue teams, and demonstrates that overall technologies are an essential ally to fight disasters.

The I-REACT team meets with the Sava River Commission and the World Meteorological Organisation

As the development of I-REACT is increasingly more tangible, our team is doubling efforts to contact the diverse stakeholders that could benefit from the technological solution of the project. This week has been particularly noticeable in this respect, with the celebration of several meetings that have led to the establishment of important connections.

On June 13th, our team was invited to meeting the International Sava River Commission to collaborate in the implementation of a new Early Warning system for floods funded by the World Bank. This system was presented in an advanced version under the name of Flood Forecasting and Warning System in the Sava River Basin (Sava FFWS), and was demonstrated to be ready for implementation. At the meeting, different ways of collaboration were explored. On the one hand, the possibility of integrating their data in the I-REACT platform was explored whereas, on the other, the consortium offered to provide different unique information derived from satellite modelling, social media analysis and citizen reports, for a better management of disasters in the region.

Sava River floods in 2014 (source Balkanist Magazine)

Later in the week, another meeting was held in Ljubljana hosted by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The meeting was focused on the implementation of the South East European Multi-Hazard Early Warning Advisory System (SEE-MHEWS-A), a large joint initiative for improving meteorological, hydrological and marine forecasting, through the enhancement of modelling, nowcasting, ICT infrastructure and data provision. In this context, our project will contribute to this large effort with novel products and services, from the crowdsourcing of information to the gamification of citizen reporting.

Important conclusions were extracted from both meetings that are in line with the efforts of our project. Emphasis was made towards people-centered systems are key in order to reduce the impact of disasters, and on the communication effort to create a risk-informed society. Overall, the contribution of I-REACT was appreciated in supporting the integration of citizen data, in the communication of warnings and risk awareness information through mobile phones and social media, but also in the creation of a Cloud based ICT infrastructure that is scalable, reliable,  flexible, and capable of handling Big Data in real-time. To this end, the modular architecture of I-REACT will allow interoperability with existing systems and provision of added value data and service to other initiatives such as Sava FFWS and SEE-MHEWS-A, at transboundary, EU, and global levels.

Local predictions of global changes: a carbon-disaster footprint

When we hear of climate change and global warming, images of ice cracking in the Arctic come to our minds and, with them, the possible catastrophes that can occur in coastal areas when the ice melts and sea levels rise. This is the classic image of a disaster caused by climate change, but there are more.

From the meteorological point of view, the relationship between climate change and natural disasters is full of examples. Because not only the ice melts, but also the oceans water heats up. An increase of ocean heat in some tropical regions can cause more convection activity producing extreme hurricanes and severe floods. Likewise, an increase of temperatures or a change in rainfall in some arid regions can cause severe droughts never experienced before. What is worse and concerning, if these two last events occur consecutively in the same region, flooding in an arid zone without vegetation -that normally holds the soil together- will lead to large landslides and, with them, great economic and natural losses.

This occurs globally, but nowadays it has local impact in areas of the planet that had never suffered catastrophes associated with this kind of extreme weather events. And many of them are not prepared. Our climate is changing and, particularly, extreme events can vary in their location and their frequency. Then, we must work to anticipate the future local impacts of this progressive global change. But, if predicting the short-term weather is sometimes tricky, how can we guess what will happen in 20, 50 or 100 years?

For this challenging task, we need the so-called Global Climate Models. These are mathematical models that take advantage of the power of computing and specialized software designed to solve the equations that describe meteorological phenomena. These models simulate what has happened since 1850 -just before the start of the Industrial Revolution- and what will happen until 2100.  The outcome of Global Climate Models are simulations, analysed as with a range of different scenarios and probabilities, of climate change that help us understand the uncertainty of this phenomenon. The models take into account the initial conditions (also called internal variability), the errors due to the lack of knowledge in some physical processes and also the unknown influence of other external perturbations in the future (such as the increase of atmospheric CO2, which is the main culprit for global warming).

The results of Global Climate Models have a very low spatial resolution, since these models study the Earth in grids of about 300km2 describing global scale phenomena, reason why we need to downscale them to obtain a much larger resolution and local impact of climate change. Our partner METEOSIM oversees developing downscaling techniques and adapting this valuable information to our I-REACTOR system. They are responsible for generating, calibrating and validating models that will tell us how likely certain European regions will suffer from these extreme phenomena due to climate change.

This information will be linked to that obtained with the technologies we both exploit and develop in the project and will enable us to implement emergency prevention throughout Europe with unparalleled accuracy.

Having this data under our control is a tremendous advantage but is not the only prevention action we can take. On an individual level, we can try to reverse the road to 1850, to see if luckily, we can reduce day by day our carbon footprint and the disasters it entails.