Floods of Water, Floods of Data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Source: Thinkstock / bestdesigns

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