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.

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.

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.

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.