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IT to the rescue: How technology helps the UK deal with flooding

Mobile technology, digital mapping and geographical information systems all played a part in ensuring public safety during this winter’s floods in the UK

For hundreds of thousands of people in the UK, Christmas 2015 will be remembered not for mulled wine, carols and chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but for torrential rain, rising rivers, flooded homes, and a bleak and tedious clean-up.

With a warming global climate and an extreme El Niño event combining to hit the country with a succession of severe storms over the Christmas period, communities across the north of England and lowland Scotland were left counting the cost of repeated inundations.

But although it will be scant comfort to those affected, things could have been worse, and thanks to careful network planning and increasingly accurate mobile mapping services, the emergency services were able to perform their functions to the best of their ability in trying circumstances.

Future innovations around the internet of things (IoT) may well help improve public safety still further, as we shall see.

For John Lewis, chief operating officer at emergency services radio network supplier Airwave, the flooding in Cumbria and Yorkshire was a big test for the company’s infrastructure, but fortunately, one for which it has spent a long time preparing.

“Fundamentally, it is about organisation, how we co-ordinate resources and liaise with our customers, because at the end of the day it is about responding to our customers’ needs so that they can respond to civilian needs,” says Lewis.

To assist in disaster planning, Airwave forms part of the National Emergency Alert for Telecoms (Neat) system, part of the government’s emergency response organisation, which itself reports into the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (Cobra). Neat provides a forum for telecoms operators to come together to provide co-ordinated response and a collective focus on those areas deemed to be at greatest risk.

Airwave operates a number of different types of sites with varying degrees of redundancy built in. For example, about one-third of its sites have their own generators and a week’s worth of fuel.

Ground-based network resilience technology

These sites will also incorporate ground-based network resilience (GBNR) technology; in essence a transmission ring with two self-provisioning radio links that can take over from each other should one of them be lost.

Almost all of these critical sites are located along the national road network, says Lewis, because this is where most emergency services activity will take place. The rest of its sites will tend to deal with hand-held coverage for police officers, and are not seen as so important.

Lewis’s job is made easier by the fact that the emergency services will have their own plans and fall-backs in place, but obviously even the best planning cannot prevent disaster from striking and in Cumbria, Airwave lost about 10 of its terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) sites to a combination of water ingress, power cuts and backhaul network outages.

In its eyes, this is actually an exceptional performance, and because Airwave built substantial overlap into its Tetra network to begin with, and has a number of deployable mobile units that it can send into the field if needed, no emergency services were adversely affected.

“We coped very well,” says Lewis, “compared to what you would have read in the national press about mobile networks that saw sustained outages.”

Major outages hit fixed network

In Yorkshire, things were much worse in some ways, because a number of major urban centres, including Leeds and York, were flooded and there was a wider impact on the fixed network, with major outages hitting both BT and Vodafone sites.

“You will always get technical failure,” says Lewis. “However, by investing, you can ensure you have as many options as possible.”

However, Tetra will not be around for ever, and the next iteration of the emergency services network – due to start going live in the next couple of years – will be based on a 4G network, to be supplied by EE.

We coped very well, compared to what you would have read in the national press about mobile networks that saw sustained outages
John Lewis, Airwave

From this point onwards, Airwave will play no further part in providing the network infrastructure for the emergency services, and although the company’s official position has always been that 4G would naturally replace Tetra in the end, Lewis has reservations about the switchover.

Given the disruption experienced by mobile network operators during the floods, says Lewis, can the emergency services really expect to rely on a mobile network shared with the public staying operational? After all, mobile phone masts rarely have their own generators or a cache of fuel.

Digital mapping and big data improves safety

To assist in planning and disaster response, local authorities also now have a number of software tools at their disposal.

One of these is the geographical information systems (GIS) platform provided by Esri UK, which captures, stores, analyses and presents a number of different spatial or geographic datasets.

“Our GIS platform is a suite of products that gives you the ability to look at data differently to traditional database analytics,” says Esri’s Simon Weaver, analytics programme manager. “It allows you to look at the relationships between different datasets based on location.

“By layering and correlating this data, you can get quite a detailed picture of how things work in the real world.”

Housing associations can also use GIS to quickly and easily plot the location of their properties, learn which are at risk and take mitigating action
Simon Weaver, Esri

One local authority that is already using Esri’s services is Worcestershire County Council, which employs a GIS system to plan for and manage serious flooding events, using a map of the county’s roads that can be overlaid with up to 30 other datasets.

It enables the council to forecast where problems will occur and where its people are, so they can get out and mitigate the situation as quickly and cost-effectively as possible, says Weaver.

“Housing associations can also use it to quickly and easily plot the location of their properties, learn which are at risk and take mitigating action, such as deploying sandbags, or even permanent defences, in advance,” he adds.

In Esri’s case, Lancashire County Council is also a customer, and used the GIS service extensively during the floods to co-ordinate local ambulance services, NHS trusts, police, fire and rescue, and even education and library services.

National mapmaker Ordnance Survey (OS) also actively supported the government in its response to the floods, with team members from its Consultancy and Technical Services (CaTS) unit – part of its commercial business – activated to support incident response on the ground and at OS headquarters in Southampton.

Live satellite data

Its team’s main line of work involved receiving, processing and loading live satellite data showing flood extents, mapping impacted electrical substations linking to vulnerable people who rely on them, and conducting analysis to assist emergency responders.

OS also activated its ResilienceDirect service during the national emergency. This gives emergency services access to a secure information-sharing platform underpinned by OS’s location data provided under the Public Sector Mapping Agreement.

OS claims to have already realised £760,000 in efficiency savings for clients using the service, which cuts across multiple communication channels to improve efficiency and joint working.

It is designed to enable co-ordinated response and recovery during emergency situations and information, process and technology sharing between blue light services.

On the ground, emergency response teams were able to use ResilienceDirect to visualise dynamic situations, with the incident maps produced helping to inform both local operations and briefings back to Cobra.

Cleaning up and making good

The use of mapping and mobile technology does not end when the floodwaters have receded, however. Two of Esri’s clients are insurance companies Aviva and Direct Line Group, both of which have pioneered the use of GIS in their businesses to rate flood risks, and are now doing so again.

Aviva wanted to be able to underwrite more accurately and price more effectively for individual levels of risk, says GIS manager Eleanor McLachlan.

We are now able to run complex models on 28 million UK addresses more quickly and more frequently
Eleanor McLachlan, Aviva

“We are now able to run complex models on 28 million UK addresses more quickly and more frequently,” she says. “Staff are able to make better decisions, from underwriting to claims, or fraud to resource planning.”

Direct Line Group, which also owns the Churchill and Privilege brands as well as small business insurance provider NIG, adopted GIS after similar floods hit southern England during the abnormally wet summer of 2007.

Previously, Direct Line had relied on postcode or district-level data, and needed more precise tools to both reduce the level of risk it was exposed to, and provide better service to customers.

“We wanted to be able to differentiate between individual properties on the same street and allow a higher level of interaction with more data, enabling users to drill into maps and view contextual information simultaneously,” says Direct Line head of geospatial, Richard Jones.

The increased granularity of risk intelligence means business is being priced more accurately and consistently
Richard Jones, Direct Line

“Geospatial gives customers more accurate prices, provides our underwriters with a wider range of information, and shows reinsurers a more detailed picture of our portfolio risk.

“The increased granularity of risk intelligence means business is being priced more accurately and consistently, and underwriters can be smarter about what business we take on board.”

Besides flood risk, Direct Line can now also examine any property in the UK for risk of fire, subsidence, theft and wind storms.

The internet of floods

What of the future? Two hundred miles south of Cumbria, in Oxford, local startup The Flood Network – previously profiled by Computer Weekly – offers an IoT sensor-based early warning system for future flooding events.

The Flood Network, which can be viewed online, consists of a number of water-level sensors placed around low-lying parts of Oxford.

Its devices are suspended above and along watercourses and in other low-lying locations, such as basements, and operate in parts of the radio spectrum previously used by analogue television stations that have been left vacant following the digital switchover. This is known as TV white space.

Because long-range transmission is essential to TV services, white space spectrum is ideal for IoT deployments over a wide area because the radio waves used by devices operating there can travel further and encounter less interference from inanimate objects, such as buildings.

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The network went live in early December 2015 and although Oxford was spared the severe weather seen in the north, it is only a matter of time before those living in the basins of the Cherwell and Thames rivers will be filling sandbags again.

The Flood Network’s director, Ben Ward, is already looking at how the system could be deployed elsewhere, and is keen to hear from people who may be interested in helping set up a similar network in their community. In fact, the expansion is already under way, with sensors being deployed as far afield as Dorset, Hereford and Yorkshire, he says.

Wider-scale model

Ward says he recognises the importance of developing a wider-scale model that will appeal more to local authorities.

“Local authorities are a target customer,” he says. “But if you bring in a crowd-sourced model, they often don’t immediately understand how to do it.”

Fortunately, help is at hand from UK domain name registry Nominet, which is supporting the project. Adam Leach, Nominet R&D director, says: “We are engaged in a number of conversations, trying to find a way to move beyond community deployments, to find corporate partners willing to support a scale deployment across a wider area. It has helped enormously to have live sensors working in Oxford.”

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