x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The next use of crowdsourcing: disaster rescue

A survey of the capital's buildings and roads is underway to build a database from video cameras, satellites and even real-time photos from the smartphones of people at the scene that can save lives in the event of an emergency.

Mark Ingersoll is one of the chief architects responsible for Harris' geospatial 3D visualisation maps.
Mark Ingersoll is one of the chief architects responsible for Harris' geospatial 3D visualisation maps.

ABU DHABI // Here's the plan: an unspecified disaster strikes the capital, toppling buildings and twisting road signs.

A pool of citizen photos, security camera videos and satellite images are pooled together on a data-rich map in layers based on their content and when they were taken.

Using that data, a system can combine with three-dimensional maps that are so detailed they can pinpoint pockets in crumbling buildings where survivors might be gathered.

The champion of this plan - and it is less futuristic than you might think - is Harris Atlas, a newly formed joint venture between the US-based Harris Corp, which has contracts with the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence, and Atlas Telecom, a local company that works closely with the UAE Armed Forces and police departments.

Harris Atlas is creating the skeleton of an open access cataloguing system for people to dump photos taken on the ground and at the scene with GPS-enabled cell phones. Meanwhile, companies and government departments can make their own data available to emergency responders and engineers, such as surveillance tapes and floor plans.

Individuals would also have access to the catalogue and map on the internet. Companies and government agencies could adjust the settings to keep sensitive information private.

Abbas Rajabifard, the president of the Global Spatial Data Infrastructure Association, said that more companies are offering information that can be used for disaster relief efforts, and powerful hand-held devices now allow individuals to share more data faster."The tools to respond, as well as awareness on the societal side to collaborate and share, has changed incredibly and as a result we are seeing multi-source data and integrated accessing coming from all different types of sources and organisations," said Dr Rajabifard, who teaches at the University of Melbourne in Australia. "It took months after the tsunami to collect the same data that took just days in Haiti, and could take only hours if the technology and facilitation were to improve."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, "there were so many different corners of New Orleans where people were, and no way of knowing their location, where resources were or where hospitals were staffed," said Mark Ingersoll, the senior engineer and systems architect for Harris Corp.

The fact that engineers outside New Orleans could not see an image of the broken levees right away "was devastating to emergency efforts," he said.

Mr Ingersoll spoke last month at the Geographic Information Systems for National Security, Defence and Emergency Management conference held by industry leaders in Abu Dhabi. He has worked with Harris Corp to provide aerial and satellite imagery during disaster relief operations after Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004 and the earthquake in Haiti this year.

Since the start of the year, Abu Dhabi officials have been taking aerial photographs for a mapping project to simplify planning of roads and public utilities. But in a rapidly growing city that has few street signs, those maps could become quickly outdated or even meaningless if a disaster toppled buildings.

The cataloguing system could be used not only for responding to a wide-scale crisis, but also for smaller events such as fires.

"These technologies are meant to be used to help police and fire departments responding to any type of emergency," Mr Ingersoll said.

"A centralised library like this could hold the information that could save time and save lives."