How crowdsource mapping and drone photography can support disaster response

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Ever wondered how citizen technology might be harnessed to help save lives?

  • 11 May 2021
  • 22 min listen

Making software and data affordable and easy to access can support developing countries in preparing for and responding to natural disasters.

Professor Richard Teeuw, a Geoinformatics expert in the School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences at the University of Portsmouth, is passionate about sharing technical resources for the sustainable development of all.

He tells us more in the latest episode of the University of Portsmouth’s research podcast, Life Solved.

You can listen to Life Solved on all major podcast players, whether via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or other apps. Just search for 'Life Solved' and press the subscribe button.

The crucial first 48 hours

Following Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact on Caribbean island nations in 2017, Professor Teeuw noticed the lag in international response when communications were cut off. The Category 5 hurricane devastated the island of Dominica, and during the first 48 hours it was difficult for international emergency response teams to gain access.

During this period, some people living in Dominica were able to make observations as to what was happening, gathering information that could prove vital in understanding how the island’s natural features and human infrastructure responded to storms.

What’s more, some people on the ground DID have the technology to map areas and make observations via simple drones that could collect photos and video of the damage.

Just after Hurricane Maria, some residents got onto motorbikes or mopeds and went along the roads. They could get between the fallen trees that way and gave us the first detailed drone footage of the damage.

Professor Richard Teeuw, Professor of Geoinformatics and Disaster Risk Reduction

A few days after Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica, about 60 University of Portsmouth staff and students created damage maps to help the rescue efforts. The volunteers took part in a crowdsource “mapathon”, interpreting detailed space satellite imagery to create maps showing the hurricane damage – building by building – in dozens of villages around Dominica.

How imagery can help build back better

So what’s the point of gathering data after an event? The benefits are twofold. Firstly, tracking hurricane damage - comparing it in ‘before and after’ footage - enabled faster processing of insurance claims, so households and businesses could recover more quickly. But in a bigger sense seeing how Dominica’s mountainous, volcanic landscape responded to the storm, where water flowed, and landslides took place, and where flooding happened, is essential in future-proofing the island.

Where the rivers meet the coast is where most of the people live. Unfortunately, in a hurricane, that's a very dangerous setting because you've got a lot of rainfall coming off very steep slopes, flowing down the narrow valleys to the coast. And at the same time, you very often have got huge storm surge waves coming in along the coast.

Professor Richard Teeuw, Professor of Geoinformatics and Disaster Risk Reduction

Detailed drone photography of damage to bridges, roads and buildings has enabled the team to see which infrastructure types were most vulnerable and which locations were most exposed to geohazards: essential information for effective rebuilding projects.

Dominica is just one example of a research project that has provided a model with far-reaching applications. Professor Teeuw thinks that open-source satellite imagery and data, as well as accessible, low-cost mapping technologies, have the power to inform and protect some of the nations that need it the most. This is the challenge the team have been meeting within the CommonSensing project, which aims to help small island nations to cope with climate change and the associated increase in hazards driven by extreme weather.

Collaboration is key

And collaboration is key to everything the team at Portsmouth does. In the podcast, Professor Teeuw tells us about the annual, international SimEx project – a simulated disaster management exercise to help train emergency responders. He’s also been using his skills in satellite imaging analysis to track illegal gold mining in the rainforests of Columbia. This contribution has meant that delicate environments and the communities they support and interact with can be better protected by authorities.

Episode transcript:

Anna Rose: Welcome to Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. In this podcast, we explore the latest research breakthroughs that look set to have an impact on all of our lives. From economics and sustainability to health, society and the environment. Portsmouth is championing innovation and cutting edge ideas to apply real change.

Anna Rose: In this series, we're looking at breakthroughs in the way we observe, predict and preserve life on Earth. Earlier in this series, we heard from Dr Carmen Solana on her work to help island communities become safer in the face of extreme natural events. And today, John Worsey talks to Richard Teeuw, professor of geoinformatics and disaster risk reduction, here at the University of Portsmouth to find out how we can predict geohazards.

Richard Teeuw: They can be anything from flood plains to the volcanoes through to areas of faults and fractures that'll be affected by earthquakes.

Anna Rose: And he explains how we can combine satellite imagery with drones and community action to crowdsource emergency response efforts in the future.

Richard Teeuw: That 24 to 48 hours is a time when a lot of useful data could be collected by local people, local enthusiasts with a bit more training on how to use drones and how to process satellite images.

Anna Rose: Nature is always in motion, but disasters happen when people are present in major natural events referred to as vulnerable features.

Richard Teeuw: There was a huge earthquake in the Mojave Desert back in the 1990s. The biggest that California had ever had. But it was in the middle of the desert and nobody lived there. So it wasn't a disaster. It was just a major earthquake.

Anna Rose: Richard was frustrated that courses catered for predicting disasters and crises, but there was little education in how to avert them.

Richard Teeuw: There were plenty of courses that showed you how to assess hazards and map them, but very few of them then went the next stage in terms of communicating that to the people that would be affected by them and therefore the people who do something to reduce the risk of disaster.

Anna Rose: That's the reason Richard set up one to address that here at Portsmouth. But not content with addressing disaster responses in education, Richard is also passionate about utilising freely available data for the benefit of lower-income countries, particularly those at risk from extreme weather events or geological hazards. And he says there's a way of getting around the cost barriers that hinder sustainable development with the emergence of high-quality, open-source software for interpreting freely available data. Combining ever more widely available technology with highly detailed space satellite data means more people around the world have access to sophisticated information. The first step in disaster prevention.

Richard Teeuw: If you look at the likes of Open Street Map. That started off, I think in Oxford, and I think it was students, Woah, way back over 10 years ago who were a bit fed up with paying a lot of money to access ordnance survey map data online. So they realised there was some aerial photography that was available for free, that they could then make their own maps from drawing on top of that. So they produced a standardised system called Open Street Map. That got bigger and bigger and was then used around Europe, not just Oxford. And just before the Haiti earthquake, they kind of perfected the way they did the mapping. And with the Haiti earthquake, which I think was in 2010, they were able to use Open Street Map in conjunction with a few, especially satellite companies, which provided very detailed satellite imagery. And they remapped all the streets of Port au Prince, the capital of Haiti, probably in more detail than it had ever been done before the actual earthquake. They marked on where the refugee camps were, where the parks were, and that was done by volunteers around the world. They could access the system online. They could see an area that had not yet been mapped. They were shown how to map in a standardised way. And then there were assessors from Open Street Map who checked the quality, and that would then get published so that anybody in the world could then see the maps that had been created by those volunteers. So that, in effect, is crowdsourced mapping. Even your mobile phone has got a GPS in it. That's what's telling you where you're going when you use TomTom. With a mobile phone, you can take a photograph, you can tag it to your GPS location anywhere in the world, and you can record the time. And that's one way in which people with a mobile phone then are becoming crowd sensors and can collect information, which we can then store centrally and link back to the satellite image of that area and check what was happening at that time. So there's a kind of interaction now between the big data that we're getting from space and the big data that we can get from social media.

Anna Rose: And in addition to truly sophisticated and detailed satellite coverage with up to 10-metre detail that refreshes regularly, entrepreneurism is driving a new wave of innovation. This creates amazing opportunities for organisations responding to natural disasters.

Richard Teeuw: With a new generation of satellites, the micro satellites that you might have heard about, CubeSat. These are the size of a shoebox. And this is where Small Start-Up companies have got involved rather than big space agencies. These start-ups, such as planet dot com in California, they use off the shelf cameras, digital cameras, put them into these very small satellites, launch 100 at a time, packed in amongst the spare space when they launch a big satellite, a telecom satellite or whatever. Basically, they're getting into space for free. And from February last year, they had enough of them up there, hundreds of them, to give you daily coverage of any part of the earth's surface. So we've gone from two-week coverage to daily coverage within the space of just a few years, really. So there's been a huge surge in the amount of data that's available, the detail with which we can see the earth and the frequency with which we can see what's happening and look at changes, which is very important if you're in a crisis or a disaster situation and you've got a lot of damage and people are displaced and areas are flooded and roads are damaged and things like that.

Anna Rose: Richard told us how collaboration was key when Cyclone Harold became the largest ever to hit the South Pacific in 2020. The data his Portsmouth team were able to quickly gather, helped authorities on the islands impacted coordinate their emergency responses.

Richard Teeuw: It started in the Solomon Islands and then headed southwards. It hit the northern islands of Vanuatu. And then it just grounds the southern islands of Fiji before it faded out and became a tropical storm. It was a Category five, which is the highest on the scale. And that tracked down through a number of countries that we're working with at the moment through a project called Common Sensing, which is funded by UK Space Agency and led by the UN through their U.N. Institute of Training and Research, UNITAR. UNITAR are involved with mapping disasters. They have a group called UNOSAT that uses satellite imagery for rapid response to disasters to map the areas of damage and the extent of damage. So we were able to link up with them and their team and provide information and data to them because they would then provide that to the governments, particularly the government of Vanuatu because that was worst hit by this cyclone. We were able to, first of all, go in and use radar imagery, which we downloaded from the European Space Agency, and we could use that to then highlight the areas in the north of Vanuatu where there was severe flooding. The problem with using conventional satellites is that if you're using a satellite that looks at visible and Infra-Red, all you will see is the top of the storm cloud, you won't see through them. And in a cyclone or hurricane event, you have to really use radar to see through the cloud cover. It will go through the clouds. It will interact with water, and water stands out very clearly. So we could then produce a map showing where the flooding was around the main urban areas that were affected by the storm and the rainfall. And that was one application using the radar. We also were able to see as it happened from the day when they captured the image where the eye of the cyclone was and what its path was as it headed towards those northern islands. That was it for about the next six days. There wouldn't be another radar image for at least another six days. But we were then able to switch to the daily satellite imagery provided by planets. As the storm blew over, then it became more cloud-free, and then we could use the planet scope to look down and pick out the roads. Now, the data we get from Sentinal, the radar imagery and the other imagery we get from these about 10-metre pixels, Planet Scope gives you pixels that it's three and a half metres. So you're seeing things in a lot more detail. You could pick out individual buildings, and you can pick out vehicles on roads and stuff like that. And that is not-- is not great for mapping detail damage to buildings, but is just right for district-scale mapping because we can then follow the roads and all these islands, get to the point where there should be a bridge. See the bridge had been destroyed, note the location of that bridge. We could follow the road and see where the road is then buried under a landslide. There was a big scar in the rainforest where you only saw Earth now, and the landslide had slid down and then closed the road. We could mark that point as well. And we were able to then catalogue hundreds of these features across the islands in a matter of hours and then send that information over to the UN, who were then able to give that to the government and the emergency services in Vanuatu, who could then work out where to send their emergency response teams.

Anna Rose: Even after the rapid response, further analysis of data is fundamental to supporting insurance claims and verifying the facts. Mapping every impacted building roof by roof to measure human impact is an essential part of the UN's post-disaster work. Richard explained how the Portsmouth team's analysis also helped feed into a report for how to rebuild after another Category five hurricane hit Dominica in 2017.

Richard Teeuw: The actual eye of the hurricane, when it hit in September 2017, was bigger than the entire island of Dominica. It was totally enveloped by this hurricane. It was a direct hit. 90 per cent devastation across the island. We went in there and used drones to map that. And we work with local volunteers, enthusiasts for drone flying and with the Dominican Red Cross and with their Office of Disaster Management. And our main role was to record, ok, where was most of the damage? Where were most of the fatalities? What happened there? What's the situation? What's the setting that you've got in terms of the different hazards? Dominica is very mountainous. So you've got about nine volcanoes running down the centre of the island, which are slightly active. There are hot springs and things like that rather than actual eruptions and lava flows. But that means most of the people are limited to the coast and along the main rivers. So the rivers meet the coast is where most of the people live. Unfortunately, in a hurricane, that's a very dangerous setting because you've got a lot of rainfall coming off very steep slopes, arriving down the narrow valleys at the coast. And at the same time, you very often got a storm surge coming in, driven by the hurricane, off the sea. So most of the fatalities were in those areas. So by checking the drone imagery of these sites, we were able to get centimetre detail of the buildings and the bridges and the roads in those areas. We were lucky in that some of our research associates had been filming earlier that year before the hurricane so we could do it before and after comparison of the detail of those areas and see where most of the erosion had been, where the deposition had been, and begin to better understand what the processes were that destroyed whole buildings, reinforced concrete buildings, bridges and things like that. Then give guidelines on how Dominica could be reconstructed along what we call 'build back better' guidelines.

Anna Rose: Drone volunteers create another opportunity to crowdsource essential data. Richard refers to these local drone-owning enthusiasts as emergency management UAV teams. The UAV stands for unmanned aerial vehicle. He began to notice how many people who may own these for commercial or hobby purposes could provide essential rapid response insight into their areas post-disaster.

Richard Teeuw: Those people who were on the ground, they were within hours of the hurricane passing. They were out with their drones collecting imagery of the damage around their village. A lot of them got onto motorbikes and mopeds and went along the roads they could get between the fallen trees that way and gave us the first real detailed footage of the damage. It took another 48 hours before the international airways were cleared, and we could get international teams in to carry out their surveys. So we've seen that that 24 to 48 hours is a time when a lot of useful data could be collected by local people.

Anna Rose: And everything Richard and the team learnt from these response situations better informs future efforts.

Richard Teeuw: A lot of what we do overseas is also been applied on the courses that we run at Portsmouth and with local organisations, organisations and NGOs so that they can present their responses should they be then deployed overseas in response to an international disaster.

Anna Rose: In fact, the annual simulation response exercises run by the team are some of the largest in the world. These are referred to as SimEx and involve an incredible collaboration to role-play events and better test out procedures, protocols and trained staff in the field. This massive collaboration means organisations can be better ready to work together in a real-world disaster situation.

Richard Teeuw: At one point, we had over 2000 players playing roles, role-playing and 60 organisations, both UK and International. It has DfID coming along – Department for International Development, they test out the Emergency Medical Team, the EMT, and their field hospital, which is about the size of a football pitch. They spend about a day or two setting that up in the field next to Fort Wigley on top of Portsdown Hill. And that's an opportunity then for the various doctors who would be deploying, let's say, for an Ebola outbreak with a field hospital. They can practice before they deploy in all the procedures, and test the equipment and make sure everything's running OK. So they test that out. We get the UN coming in because they have a United Nations disaster assessment and coordination group that go out on the first plane out to a disaster area. They'll come over, and they'll then train up their staff on how to respond to the different scenarios that we have. And there are some EU responders as well for their emergency response. And then it goes right the way down to Hampshire Fire and Rescue. They'll test their international search and rescue methodologies and procedures. That's partly because they're one of the half a dozen UK fire and rescue services that have an international capability. And the government would then send out to an earthquake in whichever country it might be.

Anna Rose: What's more, during the coronavirus pandemic, it was possible to do the whole SimEx process virtually. A true testament to the power technology now has to connect international organisations for good. Richard and his team are now working on the CommonSsensing project – funded by the UK space agency – to use satellite imagery to improve the adaptability of developing island nations to respond to climate events, hazards and changes. It's hoped that their learnings will contribute to a wider piece of work helping these nations develop.

Richard Teeuw: The University of Portsmouth is the only U.K. university to be involved because of our expertise in using satellite remote sensing for disaster risk reduction in low-income countries.

Anna Rose: Satellite imaging analysis of environments also allows the team to explore and monitor places that are either too dangerous or too inaccessible for researchers to visit on the ground. That's how he came to help Colombian authorities manage illegal gold mining in sensitive environments.

Richard Teeuw: It's more to do with an eco-disaster that's occurring out in South America, in Colombia. And this takes me full circle from my initial PhD work in the diamond fields of Sierra Leone to the gold mining areas of the jungles of Colombia. The problem there is that it's a remote area. It's the poorest District of Columbia, a place called Chocho, right on the Pacific Coast. Pacific on one side, the Andes over to the east of it and to the north of it the Caribbean. It's an incredibly rich area for biodiversity. It's richer in biodiversity per square kilometre than the Amazon would be because you got such a tremendous range of different environments. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, it's very rich in gold. And with the drugs barons in Colombia and with the civil war that they had until recently, which is rumbling on in some areas, that's wide open then for illegal gangs to get in, often linked to drugs companies, or linked to right-wing paramilitary groups, or linked to the left-wing guerrillas that remain there. They're exploiting then the gold resources. They're using dredges to dredge up gold-bearing gravel from rivers. And they've totally destroyed the rivers. And another problem is its rainforest, its cloud forest. You can't easily see through the clouds to see what's happening. So that's where we then use the radar satellite remote sensing to give us weekly monitoring of where the deforestation is occurring on the ground, even where the dredges are because they're made of metal mostly. And that stands out a bit like a sore thumb on the radar images. So we can say how many dredges per square kilometre, where they've been working to the nearest few tens of metres, what week they were working there, where they moved to next and so on, which is giving evidence to the various NGO groups, who are campaigning for the rights of the local people who are invariably very poorly represented in the parliament and in the national system. They're the forgotten people in the remote areas. And recently, that has led to the government stepping in as a result of our showing how the rates of mining have increased over the last year or so, partly to do with Covid. And they've started to increase their policing of this area and cut back on this illegal gold mining, which is costing the government in Colombia tens of millions of pounds every few months or so.

John Worsey: What's so interesting is that there's this real through line in all of your work, as diverse as it is, that it's sort of about protecting as much of it is responsive to threats and to crises and disasters. It's all sort of actually about future-proofing in a way, isn't it? It's future-proofing communities and future-proofing infrastructure so that, you know, you're protecting people from nature, you're protecting people from people, you're protecting nature from people as well.

Richard Teeuw: You can also then use those maps with the local community to say, OK, away from the river, you've got the forest, and you've got the fields around you. You can then have a map then to try and better how your community develops. How you can use agriculture or fish farming, use of forest products and so on, you've got maps then you can use to plan your own communities development. So that's one aspect of it. Another aspect then is to say, well, there are actual hazards, which is what we tend to do with the CommonSensing project and with Dominica and say, look, these are the really hazardous area, these are exposed to these hazards, these are the locations to avoid for your new school building or for your new community centre. That's a preventative mode.

Anna Rose: Raising awareness, training people and avoiding hazards all contribute to the bigger goals of sustainable development. It's amazing to observe the pace at which technology is evolving, and Richard thinks the capabilities of satellites and community action will continue to accelerate in the coming years. All of that adds up to amazing response, data and analysis to better protect and preserve human life. We'll hear more about using geological satellite data to avoid hazards in our next episode with Malcolm Whitworth.

Malcolm Whitworth: So landslides can hit vehicles. It's quite unusual, but if they do, there is the risk of death from that if it's a big landslide.

Anna Rose: And you can find more episodes of Life Solved on this podcast feed and explore other world-changing research from the University of Portsmouth. Just follow us on your favourite podcast app and check out our website, port.ac.uk.

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