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.

“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.

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.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the American coast in 2005 Facebook was a newcomer to a still-to-be-developed world wide web, there was no Twitter to have news updates and less than 70% of citizens owned a mobile phone. Today, with more portable devices than citizens and an ever-constant interaction through social networks, the way we obtain and share information during crisis has drastically improved. This is proving very helpful in recent crisis like the 2013 super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines where Twitter was the single greatest information source for response and recovery efforts.

Social media is becoming essential for authorities to access vital information provided by citizens that would not be available otherwise, which improves the prevention and response to critical events. However, social network information is largely unstructured arising from the fact that everyone can be an information source. From eyewitnesses to emergency responders or NGOs, that can provide information from the ground, to mass media that amplifies the message, or even outsiders showing sympathy and emotional support. In this context, there are many factors that affect how the information flows, such as the use of hashtags which is very diverse and can sometimes hamper the identification of relevant data. Thus, it is necessary to analyse social media to place the pieces of the puzzle together.

The extraction and analysis of social media information is an important part within the I-REACT project. This information obtained from citizens will complement data coming from earth observations, UAVs, or emergency responders, among others, to provide real time data on floods, wildfires, earthquakes and other natural disasters. For this, Natural Language Processing (NLP) technologies developed by the I-REACT partner CELI, are being used to analyse big data streams from social media.

To do this, great amounts of information are initially collected from social networks by using searches on generic keywords such as “earthquake” or “flood”. Although this information will be unstructured, all or most of the emergency-related material will be gathered this way. Since this data can be compared to that of past events and to “regular” behaviours on social networks, a vital information will be generated: detecting if something unexpected is going on and spotting the occurrence of an emergency in real time.

This information will then be validated through linguistic analysis and machine learning techniques. Here, it is possible to select the emergency-related contents and identify useful information such as the type and location of event, the casualties, or the damage to infrastructures and services. In addition, we can also have information about the sentiment of the message, which is important to create panic maps and to prioritise actions on the ground. And once the event is concluded, the system keeps collecting data so that it can be continuously tested in spotting new emergencies from social media. This way, this tool will progressively learn and refine its ability to identify disasters.

Overall, social media analysis provides fast and relevant information during emergencies, highlighting the fact that these communication channels are not only changing the way we live and interact with each other, but also making every citizen an essential part in the fight against disasters.

On the 23rd of June 2016, a side event on “High Impact Weather and Climate Induced Emergencies” was held as part of the Fourth meeting of the Community of Users on Safe, Secure and Resilient Societies. This event was organised under the umbrella of our project and in collaboration with ANYWHERE (Enhancing emergency management and response to extreme weather and climate events), which have been recently funded under the DRS-1-2015 call for crisis management to respond to extreme weather and climate events. This session was meant to stimulate exchanges and collaboration between these two projects, as well as fostering interaction with end users.

Both projects aim to leverage on technological advancements to increase the resilience of European citizens and assets to natural disasters. Although their approach differs in scope and technical implementation, both projects aim to provide comprehensive analysis systems to integrate multiple data sources and provide the fastest and most accurate information to all stakeholders involved in disaster prevention and management.

The event revolved around three main themes in which both projects have a crucial stake. A first discussion was held on the mechanisms to incorporate the real needs of first responders, risk managers and policy implementation organisms, in the management of high impact weather induced emergencies. At this session representatives of the Spanish administration commented on hydrometeorological Early Warning Systems, previous European project coordinators (DROUGHT-R&SPI and WMO/GWP projects) elaborated on drought management and policy making and UNESCO representatives discussed on the international cooperation in DRR issues. The second theme was centred on building a Community of Users in climate and weather induced emergencies. At this session, experiences from previous initiatives and current networks were discussed with the participation of JRC presenting the Community of Users of EFAS, the RISC-KIT project coordinator sharing experiences on the integration of stakeholders and end users of hydro-meteorological events in the coastal zone, and the online tool USHAHIDI was presented as a way to link citizens during disasters. The third theme was focused on the market uptake of the DRS solutions, potentially those developed as part of I-REACT and ANYWHERE projects. Discussion around this issue was held by representatives from the I-REACT partners AQUOBEX, specialised in technological solutions to floods, and geo-information specialists GEOVILLE, in addition to the ANYWHERE partner AIRBUS, that presented different technological solutions on DRR. 

Overall, the event fostered synergies and collaborations between past and present European projects, and end users, in order to integrate information and provide joint solutions to the management of disaster risks and crises of different kinds and it has been featured in the DRKMC Newsletter.