Technology and Natural Disasters

This text was originally published in my newsletter People, Planet & Technology Issue 2. To receive all new articles, subscribe to my newsletter.

There are hundreds of facets to how technology can help us in extreme situations such as natural disasters. From Citizen Science to Artificial Intelligence there are a variety of projects that deal with how we can better predict such extreme events, warn people and support local helpers. I would like to introduce three projects to you:

1. Prevent: Artificial Intelligence

The plan was to write an article of my own, but Wired has written such a good article on the subject that I actually want to give it to you one to one. The article discusses how scientists, private companies and governments can work together to develop systems that can predict floods based on environmental and environmental data, maps and artificial intelligence to warn residents and better. On the other hand, these data also serve to better prepare cities for upcoming extreme weather situations, such as floods, and to support city planners with simulations.

Recently, Allenby developed another tool to help predict, plan, and prepare for future floods: a first-of-its-kind, high-resolution map showing what’s on the ground—buildings, pavement, trees, lawns—across 100,000 square miles from upstate New York to southern Virginia that drain into the Chesapeake Bay. The map, generated from aerial imagery with the help of artificial intelligence, shows objects as small as 3 feet square, roughly 1,000 times more precise than the maps that flood planners previously used.

How Artificial Intelligence Could Prevent Natural Disasters (Wired)

2. Caution: Drones for reconnaissance

Drones can help to find injured and needy people more quickly in disaster areas. This was tested last year by package supplier UPS, the Red Cross and drone manufacturer Cyphy Works in the US states of Texas and Louisiana, where Hurricane Harvey had previously raged.

The drones are connected to a cable on the ground. The cable supplies you with electricity and allows you to stay in the air for days on end. On the drone, there is a high-resolution camera with 30x zoom to be able to search the surroundings from a height of approx. 120 meters for people who need help.

Attention is also paid to possible damage to buildings and infrastructure. In this way, the necessary assembly work is to be planned and carried out more quickly. The drones allow the assessment of the damage while flooded areas are still under water.

More about the topic on TechCrunch and UPS.

3. Support: Crisis Mapping

When a natural disaster occurs anywhere in the world, it is important that international relief organizations have a quick overview of the affected area. One example is only a few days old: This year’s Indian monsoon rains are particularly heavy – the government of the southern Indian state of Kerala speaks of the worst flood in 100 years. Hundreds of people are dead. Many persevere in emergency shelters.

In order to be able to help quickly where help is needed, one must know where and how many people are affected and how to get there as quickly and safely as possible. Besides satellite pictures, maps with marked places, paths and hospitals are indispensable. Unfortunately, OpenStreetMap or Google Maps have big gaps especially in developing and emerging countries. Even local administrations often have only outdated or inaccurate maps. Therefore there is now the Humanitarian Open StreetMap Team (HOT OSM).

On the HOT website, anyone can start drawing houses, streets, streams or even helicopter tandem possibilities on the satellite images from their home couch. On site in the respective crisis areas, these maps are then printed out and filled with the missing place names or other information by local teams – after all, it may not be possible to see on a satellite image which hut is the infirmary and which the school is. The finished maps are then available to the relief organizations – in some cases within a few days.

In crisis situations, international relief organizations contact the Humanitarian OSM team and request detailed maps of the areas concerned.

More information about the Humanitarian Open StreetMap Team and how you can participate can be found on their website: www.hotosm.org

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I feel fortunate to share my ideas and readings with a wide range of people. That’s why I am writing the monthly newsletter People, Planet & Technology on technology, environmental and social issues and their interdependence.