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!

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.