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Internet of Infrastructure: Using IoT to Save Lives in Emergency Situations

02 May 2016
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Whether we’re yelling at the Echo to give us the traffic report and turn on Justin Beiber (don’t worry—Alexa is sworn to secrecy), changing the temperature of our home from the office (Fido will be FINE at 80 degrees, okay?) or getting a push notification on our phone letting us know our zipper is down (what, you don’t?), there’s no denying that IoT has transformed our personal lives, making everyday tasks easier—and, let’s be real, allowing us to be lazier—than ever.

And while that’s well and good—minimizing effort is, of course, the American way—what’s even more impressive is IoT’s potential in the public sector and how it could be implemented to transform the way government entities work and, at the end of the day, make cities smarter and citizens safer. It’s a topic our EVP of Global Creative Marketing and Innovation R&D, Chad Darbyshire, discussed at the TASSCC TEC conference and a cause that, at Chaotic Moon, we’re always championing: how technology can, and should, be used to create more effective and efficient systems.

And in some parts of the world, some extremely impressive measures are being taken to not only improve lives, but save them.

(Get ready for a tonal shift, by the way. This is serious stuff.)

EARTHQUAKE & TSUNAMI WARNINGS

On average, 10,000 people die each year from earthquakes.

(Told you this was going to get dark.)

And often, in certain parts of the world, these quakes result in tsunamis, which endanger and often displace entire populations. This is a particular problem in Japan, and to combat this, they’ve developed an intricate warning system to alert citizens of incoming disaster. Here’s how it works:

Over 1,000 seismographs connect together in order to detect the less dangerous p-waves (longer wavelength tremors that don’t wreck things), which, in turn, predicts the potentially catastrophic s-waves (really short wavelengths that, uh, do wreck things). This detection system is connected to computing devices around the country and affected places, so that the warning system notifies them before an earthquake hits. While the system is only capable of issuing warnings one to two minutes before an earthquake strikes, that time is valuable, and this warning can make a difference, giving a surgeon time to halt an operation and an exposed person time to find and take cover.

The earthquake sensors also help predict tsunamis before they can strike, providing 15-minute warnings to coastal areas and 40-minute warnings to cities, like Tokyo, that are more inland. Thanks to the connected nature of these devices, information is able to be sent out directly and as efficiently as possible.

And it’s not just Japan that’s taking these measures. The system’s success has even influenced the United States, who has begun implementing warning systems in endangered areas as well. Take the Pacific Northwest: Studies show that there is a 30% chance that the area will suffer from a cataclysmic earthquake within the next fifty years. As a result, the ShakeAlert system for the West Coast is being developed and tested in order to predict earthquakes before they occur in the future.

DEALING WITH DROUGHT

California isn’t just at risk in the previous department either. The state is also subject to two other natural disasters: drought and, often as a result, wildfire. (This isn’t just a safety issue, either, but a serious economic one: California lost billions due to drought conditions in 2015 alone.)

To help combat the drought issue, the partners in the Community Water Dialogue developed the idea to create a wireless irrigation network (Project WIN) to help growers improve irrigation efficiency and, by proxy, reduce water usage by 30%. Basically, this tech uses wireless communication towers to connect with sensor technology. Soil tension (water needs and plant stress) is then measured in real time to anticipate when and for how long to irrigate. The result? Early adopters have already seen an increase in water savings of 15-30 percent—without any loss in yield.

POST-HURRICANE HELP

While preventative technology is incredibly important, it’s also critical to develop solutions for after disaster strikes. We’ve seen the usage of UAVs since catastrophic Hurricane Katrina, but the recent developments have made them more effective than ever. Connected UAVs enable users to remotely search for people who need assistance, communicate with rescuers, and provide supplies. And it’s not just the more complex systems that have the ability to help. Aside from UAVs, much of the technology used to help in relief makes use of cell phones, creating mesh networks that allow for communication in small areas, even when there is no reception. The ability to connect to phones, measure social media, and use GPS tracking has even made it possible to create heat maps to designate areas with the greatest need, allowing rescuers to determine where their help is most required and prioritize accordingly.

IMPROVED FIREFIGHTING

Alert improvements have also been made to effectively increase situational awareness in firefighting, especially on the fireground. While data IS being collected via traditional inspections and improved sensor technology, the problem is that it is not processed or distributed effectively. However, FireCast 2.0  is a system designed to remedy this issue. The system works by taking all of this data that was already being collected from formerly independent agencies, and then consolidating the information and processing it using various algorithms. This centralized system now provides firefighters with access to a detailed analysis of 330,000 city structures, giving them the ability to know the layout of a burning building before entering.

FLOOD DETECTION

Last week—on Sunday and Monday alone—Houston received 15 inches of rain, resulting in flooding that not only displaced many of the city’s residents but also, in a tragic development, took eight lives.

This exemplifies the importance of early flood detection and giving residents the chance to act quickly and evacuate when necessary. But what’s the best way to do that? One Rice University professor and flood warning systems expert has combined cameras, radar, rain gauges, and digital modeling to create a system that the Texas Medical Center has been utilizing since 1998. It works by taking weather data radar and data from water gauges and then taking a computer model to predict how fast water levels will rise. That information is then relayed to the necessary parties—in this case, the Medical Center—who can take action. The system is an effective one, and now it’s only a matter of figuring out how this warning system can be applied on a larger level—and, of course, getting the government to go along with it.

The same article that detailed the Houston flooding system holds a great passage and quote describing the difficulty of applying new, modern emergency systems. It’s also a description that could apply on a broader level to implementing tech-centric systems for all emergency situations:

“Persuading governments to adopt new technology can be hard, but it’s even harder when that technology means the difference between life or death. ‘There’s a high cost to being wrong,’ [University of the Pacific professor] Basha says, ‘so leaders need to be sure that the new system would work as well or better than the existing, less granular approach.”

In other words, there are infinite ways that IoT could be used to make cities safer in the case of emergency situations and natural disasters, but when stakes are this high, it’s critical that we don’t just do it, but do it right.