We are reaching the end of our project. For the last years we have developed a functioning set of tools for emergency responders, launched an app for citizens to be safe from disasters, organised demonstrations across Europe and met with a lot of emergency professionals and people interested in disaster management. So, it’s time to talk about what to expect after I-REACT project is finished, and for this we met with Dr. Fabrizio Dominici, manager at Links Foundation and coordinator of I-REACT.

It’s been two and a half years and we are on the final stretch of the project. What are your impressions?

I-REACT is a successful project. And I’m not just saying this. We have been told so in several occasions, like last December at the Security and Research Event. Several people highlighted that we have come up with a very holistic solution to disaster management. This is really thanks to the approach we took with milestones like the co-design event we organised in Paris. So, after two and a half years we have a very good product that we started from scratch. And this is something we need to be proud of.

Indeed, it has been a very busy two and a half years. What would you say that was the aspect of I-REACT that was specially challenging?

I-REACT fuses together a lot of services and data. Our project wouldn’t have been possible without efforts like Copernicus. Let’s not forget that. Together with historical data from satellites like Meteosat, and a lot of other sources, our Big Data system processes all this flood of incoming information. I-REACT could be seen as the convergence of different solutions. But it’s not just a mere collection of solutions. I-REACT is something really organic, that is able to adapt itself to different situations. Achieving that has been for me the most challenging aspect of I-REACT.

Could you expand a little bit on that?

What we have seen through our demonstrations through Europe is that we have a very fragmented situation when it comes to disaster management. Different regions have different ways of organising themselves for emergency situations. And it’s not just a matter of geographical differences. Different emergency responders —firefighters, 112, local emergency services…— operate in different ways and manage very different systems. And what we have seen in our demos again and again is that I-REACT is able to adapt itself to this changing landscape. It is nice to see that we have created a system that is able to complement the existing tools. So, we are organic and adaptable. Our project was born from a call to improve the resilience of the society, and we ourselves are resilient to the many different situations we have found.

Is there something about I-REACT that you would like to go back and change or that you would have planned different now that we are finishing?

Certainly. We always find situations that were not contemplated at the beginning. One thing that I think we underestimated were the co-design efforts. Co-designing tools are really useful. They allowed us to come up with our good results, but we underestimated a bit the efforts allocated to it. Another thing that I would change… is inherent to working with technology. The technological landscape is always changing. One of our main strengths is Artificial Intelligence: it’s at the very core of our I-REACTOR. Although AI is a big thing nowadays, back when we started in 2016, it was still in its infancy. During the project we saw an amazing growth of Artificial Intelligence, and we started with basic techniques in AI. Thankfully we were able to adapt the project accordingly. But this is not always possible within a European Project. I think that European projects, especially technological ones, would benefit if the European Commission allowed for a little bit more flexibility. Because in a project that stretches for three, four years… What is true at the proposal time may not be true after two years. So the technology is moving quickly and the project must be able to follow.

And after I-REACT, what’s next?

Here I see two different aspects. On one hand, the future of I-REACT itself. On the other hand, the future of disaster management tools in Europe.

Let’s start with the future of I-REACT.

Well, with many European funded projects we talk about research and innovation. In the case of I-REACT, we are an innovation project, meaning that is closer to the market, to be a set of tools that are at the disposal of emergency services. It’s unusual for a project to arrive at the end with a company in place to exploit the results. But we have managed that and we will see I-REACT in the market soon. You will certainly hear more about that in the coming months, and I would certainly like to see more experiences like this in Europe.

And outside of I-REACT?

As I stressed before, one of the main things that we have encountered on our demonstrations is the fragmentation of the emergency management situation around Europe. And I believe that to have a more resilient society we need to reduce this fragmentation. For the future, I see a need to build on top of the results of I-REACT, but also on the excellent results that other European projects such as Anywhere, beAware, E2mC, STORM or Comrades are getting. Every project has its strengths and weaknesses, but I think that the next move should be a push from the policy makers at a European level. A push for the adoption of the results from these projects. Because I have the impression that we jump from one project to another. Projects that have excellent results! But good results need to be finished. And finishing means to go on the market, with a systemic approach. My dream would be to see the results from I-REACT, Anywhere, beAware and all the projects we mentioned earlier put together systematically and adopted. And for that we need the support of the policy-makers that fund our projects. And for that, we need the European Commission to take a more systemic approach to emergency management landscape, to reduce the fragmentation.

On October 2017, the highway no. 1 between Turku and Helsinki was flooded. Only two of its four lanes were functioning. This incident, that may seem unimportant, resulted in more than 14 million Euros spent only in repairing the highway. The total costs, however, remain unknown: more than 55000 people use that highway on a daily basis, and a lot of the users suffered delays, losing flight and train connections.

This is the scenario in which we worked on our last demonstration in Helsinki this past week. Thanks to the efforts of our partner FMI, we joined with the Finnish Rescue Services, water authorities and other organizations from the Ministry of Interior, to role-play the response to the 2017 flood, and see how our technologies can help in these situations.

One of the attendees to our demo, using our Augmented Reality glasses

By working together with emergency management authorities, we want to learn from past experiences, to respond better to floods and other disasters. If you work in disaster management and would like to take part in one of our incoming demonstrations, drop us a line!

Today is a happy day for every single person that is part of I-REACT. After 3 years of hard work, we are finally releasing to the public the first free European app to help citizens against disasters: our smartphone app. With it, you can help keep yourself and your community safe. Did you spot a wildfire? Go to a safe place, snap a picture and upload it, along with some information. The rest of the users will be able to see your report and stay safe. Or maybe you have seen in the news that heavy rain is coming. With our app, you can check if you are at risk of suffering a flood, and be prepared!

We are launching the app today, on the International Day for Disaster Reduction. We want to contribute as much as we can to diminish the impact that disasters have. Just last year, events like floods and wildfires affected more than 95 million people, they killed more than 9,600, and cost a whopping €285 billion, making 2017 the second costliest year on record. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it will get better: climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent and intense. We want you to be prepared and to have all the tools you need to fight against disasters. That’s why the app also includes a set of tips & quizzes on what to do before, during and after a weather-related emergency. All of this can be in your pocket: go to Google Play and download the app for free.

 

This week, just before our app launches, we organised a demonstration of the I-REACT technologies in Barcelona. Our partners of Meteosim, UNESCO and ISMB where in charge of presenting in the workshop our set of tools against disasters: from the I-REACTOR that integrates the information coming from multiple sources, to the wearable technologies for first-responders.

But we weren’t in Barcelona only to show our project. A great part of the demonstrations we have held so far involves listening to the needs and demands of all the attendees: Protecció Civil de la Generalitat, Bombers de la Generalitat, Bombers de Barcelona, technicians and personnel of the Agència Catalana de l’Aigua, Servei Meteorològic de Catalunya, Emergencias 112 from Murcia and Pau Costa Foundation. We want to thank all of them for attending our workshop, and hope that together we can build more resilient societies.

After the last full-demonstration in Ipswich, we are going to showcase our technologies throughout Europe. The next date is in November, in Finland. Stay tuned for more information!

Sweden is currently going through its worst drought in 74 years, which has caused dozens of wildfires across the country. Millions of euros worth of land have been destroyed. As of last Thursday, 19th of July, an area similar to Stockholm has been burnt. Over a hundred people have been evacuated, while others have been advised to stay indoors with the windows shut as to avoid breathing in the fumes. Although they may come as a surprise, these fires are in line with what researchers expect from climate change: more frequent and intense disasters.

Credit: ESA

To try to reduce the impact of these emergencies, the European Union founded Copernicus, the Earth Observation Programme, which looks down on our planet and its environment. Copernicus consists of a family of satellites called the Sentinels, as well as many in-situ sensors and measurement systems that are put at the disposal of the programme by the EU Member States. Through these satellites and sensors, it monitors and forecasts the state of the environment on land, sea and in the atmosphere.

 

Among the many services that Copernicus offers, the Emergency Management Service, or EMS, is in charge of providing information for emergency response in relation to different types of disasters. In the case of the Swedish fires, the European Forest Fires Information System has been activated. This system provides near real-time and historical information on forest fires. It comprises the full fire cycle, from supplying data on the pre-fire conditions to assessing post-fire damages. Apart from fires, EMS covers other disasters like floods, landslides or earthquakes, deliberate and accidental man-made disasters and also humanitarian ones. In addition, it provides information for prevention, preparedness, response and recovery activities.

 

All of this information is provided completely for free to the stakeholders involved in disaster prevention. Say there’s a flood, fire or earthquake. Public and private contractors take the data from Copernicus and they create maps for the general public and disaster response teams. Within the I-REACT project, GeoVille is the partner that processes and analyses the geo-data layers supplied by the Copernicus EMS. After retrieving the data, GeoVille harmonises the data and integrates ready-to-use maps into the I-REACT platform. The more data is processed the better, as it will allow users to make better-informed decisions. Data provided by EMS on disasters such as wildfires or floods helps prevent the loss of lives, property, and damages to the environment, contributing to build more resilient societies.

 

Last week, our project completed another important milestone in Ipswich, one of the oldest cities in UK, and an area under the risk of severe floods that still remembers the “cold night of terror” of 1953 when a huge flood took the lives of 41 people. In this setting, our industrial partner Aquobex hosted a two-day meeting in which we were able to interact with different potential end-users and test all our technologies in a real scenario.

Wednesday 13th was a day to share information and learn from many experts from different areas that accepted our invitation. The interactions were really insightful and enabled us to identify gaps, opportunities, risks and potential improvements that might be made in our products.

Thursday 14th was a day for real action in a flood simulation exercise at the Orwell river in Ipswich. In collaboration with the Environment Agency and the Suffolk Fire & Rescue Service, we successfully tested together all our tools for the very first time. Among others, we showed fully functional mobile app, wearables and smart glasses for first responders, numerous information layers for decision-makers and the app for citizens. And we were not only able to test our system but also to successfully compare it with one of the best systems available in Europe: the UK Environment Agency’s system.

After two partial demonstrations (in Sava river and in Piedmont, Italy) this third demo has shown us that the system is ready and mature enough to represent a real and complete alternative to existing systems and is already showing fully developed innovations such as the social media engine or the crowdsource information.

We are approaching the final stages of I-REACT, where we are going to test the technologies against disasters that we have developed in the last two years. Back in December, we organised our first in-field demonstration in collaboration with UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe and the Sava River Basin Commission. In March, we tested our technologies against floods in Piedmont, Italy. And finally, tomorrow we start our third practical demonstration of the I-REACT tools in Ipswich, UK.

Satellites, drones, augmented reality glasses, wearables, and our mobile application: these are the technologies that we will be presenting in Ipswich the 13th and 14th of June. It will be a two-day flood simulation exercise, in which we will put together all of our tools for the first time. The event is organised by our partner Aquobex, and it is supported by the Environment Agency and the Suffolk Fire & Rescue Service.

The drill will simulate the flood of the Orwell river, and it will serve as a practical exercise where the selected attendees will work together in this scenario. Among the participants will be representatives from the Environment Agency, the UK Flood Forecasting Centre, and County Councils, as well as insurance professionals

Floods constitute 47% of all weather-related disasters of the last 20 years. During this period, flooding has killed 157 000 people, affected 2.3 billion people, and meant an economic loss of $662 billion. Our technological tools provide protection agencies with services that offer real-time information before, during, and after the disaster situation. Furthermore, we have developed a solution that is highly modular, which ensures that the individual tools can be adopted separately by the emergency services, so they can integrate them with existing tools. These innovative cyber technologies can provide emergency responders with a more accurate situational awareness in flood-related emergencies, which improves their response time, and in turn helps them save lives.

In the last 20 years we have witnessed a revolution in the use of mobile phones. At the beginning, with the first-generation technology (1G), we were only able to make calls. Then 2G came along, and with it, SMS. When 3G appeared,  data exchange became a must, and we started sharing WhatsApps, pictures and afterwards connection became so fast with 4G that allowed us to watch even HD videos on our phones wherever we were.

But all these technologies, no matter how fast they are, have one common issue: they rely heavily on the antennas that we see in top of buildings. These are the weak links in the chain that unites your mobile to the person or server you’re reaching. Your data goes from our phone directly to the antenna, that sends the message through a network of routers, nodes and repeaters until the message reaches the recipient. But during a disaster, these antennas could be damaged, leaving entire zones without service.

But what if we could structure the mobile network in a different way? That is one of the features of 5G, the next generation of mobile communication. It’s called device-to-device communication, and it enables devices like smartphones and wearables to send and receive data from other devices directly, without intermediates. Although 4G can already use this type of communication, it remains restricted to the devices used by emergency responders. 5G will bring device-to-device to the commercial devices for the first time.

During a disaster such as an earthquake, a flood or a fire, this could be crucial. Authorities could send alerts directly to the citizens. Or instructions for evacuation. Even receive requests for help from troubled citizens.  These vital messages could hop from device to device, reaching the citizens in the affected area, even if the mobile network is down. All that would be needed is a starting point, from where to send the initial message. They are called relay nodes, and they could be placed almost everywhere. They could be static, like the current mobile antennas. Or they could be placed in top of ambulances and other emergency vehicles, so when they reach the affected places, they can also gather information and send alerts. They could be even set up in the top of drones, to provide service to the people underneath, while scouting dangerous areas.

That’s why at I-REACT, our partners at Politecnico di Torino are researching how to adapt this new technology to the project, to develop a resilient, useful system that will be able to work in the years to come.

5G is near. Just in December 2017, the 3GPP approved a universal standard on this technology. And the common agreement among telecommunications providers is that the service will break into the market soon. So, stay tuned to this new technology that will allow you to stay tuned, even if a disaster occurs.

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.

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.”