Responsible Business: Transforming disaster response with IoT and cloud computing

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 14, 2018 - May 20, 2018.
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For the 10 million residents of Jakarta, the sight of streets dissolving into rivers is far from unusual. About 40% of the Indonesian capital, particularly the northern areas, lie below sea level and the coastal city’s 13 rivers, which get swollen by monsoon rains, would inundate the dense urban areas.

Among the culprits are climate change and land subsidence. The former causes the rising of the Java Sea and the latter — caused by the digging of illegal wells — exacerbates flooding as the earth’s surface literally sinks.

While the authorities and experts grapple with the recurring, and at times, deadly flooding that incurs enormous economic, infrastructural and agricultural losses, the PetaBencana project comes into play by crowdsourcing reports to streamline disaster response to the flooding.

Initiated by the Urban Risk Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the community-based platform for emergency response and disaster management collects flood reports from netizens on social media and maps them on its website, The real-time data on the flood map is available to the public and also useful for first responders.

The not-for-profit project gathers, vets and visualises the reports using an open-source software to transform the fragmented data into critical information for the general public and government agencies. It is currently run by MIT and supported by Across the Cloud Pty Ltd, which develops scalable and reliable IT architecture for the project.

PetaBencana currently receives funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) through MIT while the company works on a number of projects for income, says Across the Cloud managing director Dr Matthew Berryman.

Berryman, who is the platform’s IT architect, says the project started at the University of Wollongong in Australia, where he worked with MIT research scientists Dr Etienne Turpin and Dr Tomas Holderness. Turpin, who was based in Jakarta, observed that many residents there were tweeting about the flooding in the city.

“With their background in mapping and my background in IT, we decided to take advantage of all the data and use it as a source of information to build this flood-mapping service, which at the time was called PetaJakarta. We started with a simple platform that focuses on Jakarta alone, using just Twitter as a source of information. Then we added Qlue and Detik, which are local social media networks in Indonesia,” he adds.

The service is now available in Surabaya, Bandung and Semarang.

The project has added Telegram and Facebook Messenger as supported platforms while Amazon Web Services (AWS) serves as a platform that allows it to build new features and offer useful services such as Rekognition,  a deep-learning-based image and video analysis service.

“We initially chose AWS to run the project because we were providing a service for the public and, later, the emergency service authorities. So, it needed to be a very reliable platform.”

Since its debut in 2013, the platform has improved the information sharing and data coordination among residents and government agencies, fostering equitable and collaborative resilience to climate change. It has been used by millions of residents to make time-critical decisions on safety and navigation during floods and has been adopted by the natural disaster management authorities to improve response times and share time-sensitive emergency information with affected residents.


From people as ‘sensors’ to IoT devices

To report a flood, PetaBencana users communicate with chatbots on several supporting platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Qlue and Detik, on their mobile devices. The bot responds to the keyword “banjir” (flood) and the reporting resident is given a link to a mobile website that allows him to enter the flood height data, add a description and upload images on mobile-friendly web forms.

On Twitter, the bot uses the full data feed available on the platform and looks for people in Indonesia who mention the keyword in their tweets. “The bot would tweet ‘Hello, I’m the Bencana Bot’ and there will be an animated GIF showing how to use the service. From then on, you can send direct messages to do the reporting workflow,” explains Berryman.

He adds that to steer clear of false reports, users are encouraged to upload photos, which are run through the Rekognition interface, which labels objects that have been affected by flooding.

When AWS came out with its Internet of Things (IoT) services, Berryman and his team carried out a trial by using IoT devices that he designed and built as sensors to measure the water level in the waterways and canals of Jakarta. Prior to that, the emergency services used markings on the side of the rivers and relied on people to call them and feed the information into a database.

Berryman says the sensors were built from off-the-shelf components that communicate with AWS’ IoT platform to automatically map the water level in the waterways. “It was very dirty work because we had to transport the boxes [of sensors] to the waterways and attach them to the water beams at four locations around Jakarta to maximise the amount of information we were getting.

“All this information was displayed on the online map so you could see the flood reports with the official flood height data that were entered into a customised and secure interface we built for Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana (BNPB, Indonesia’s national disaster management authority) and Badan Penanggulangan Bencana Daerah (BPBD, the provincial disaster management agency). You could also see graphs of the water level and the temperature and humidity measurements.”

The interface, which is an analytics dashboard, is used by BPBD officers stationed across the city to help with the real-time validation process.

“All these sources of information come back to this secure interface. Then the officers put in the official flood height data for the different districts and regions of Jakarta,” says Berryman.

“We are looking at rolling it out to all of Indonesia. It is very exciting and we will have to start grappling with how official data is put in and keep looking for a set verification process.”

The challenge lies in making the project scalable. During the dry season, there may only be about 10 users a day — a huge contrast to a major flood caused by the monsoon, when there are a quarter of a million users. “So, the system needs to be very scalable and responsive,” says Berryman.

For now, the project has only developed a web platform and steers clear of developing a mobile phone application as it leverages other platforms with apps such as Twitter and Facebook. “That way it is very easy, whether it is an Android or iOS device, to just use the platform without needing to invest extra in app development.


Mapping other disasters

Across the Cloud has been working on PetaBencana while contracting to MIT, says Berryman. It recently embarked on other projects such as building a similar platform for other non-governmental organisations. Since the data available on the online map is open to the public, it has been used by other agencies around the world.

“The Pacific Disaster Center in the US uses our data as part of its feeds to monitor events around the Pacific region. The data is also used for our project with Doctors without Borders, where we look for any disease outbreaks that occur due to flooding events,” says Berryman.

“We are also working on a shark-monitoring project using drones. As we have taken on more projects, I am now at the stage where I can at least pay myself a full-time salary and afford to hire casual staff.”

The project has invested a lot of development time in making the platform useful and tailoring it to the target audience — the citizens of Indonesia. “The platform currently requires some technical expertise for setting up, although we are looking to automate it to do less language translation work, as well as the custom interface we have built for the local emergency authorities,” says Berryman.

He admits, however, that maintaining relationships with partners (either government units or other humanitarian NGOs) and keeping up with the changing behaviour and usage of social media for disaster reporting is challenging. PetaBencana will soon be run by Yayasan Peta Bencana, an Indonesian not-for-profit organisation, to ensure sustainability and longevity of the project and its technologies in the country and the rest of Southeast Asia.

Across the Cloud has been in discussions with BNPB to look at helping to manage different disasters and it is planning to work with notable universities and organisations in the country to design workshops and co-research disaster management.

“We are currently working on some of the technical changes that need to occur on our platform to extend our geographical coverage. We are looking to expand to all of Indonesia soon and are grappling with the technical details,” says Berryman.

“We have done trials of the flood-mapping platform in Broward County in Florida, the US, as well as Chennai, India. So, people there have started to use the platform as well. We are always keen to cater to other types of disasters such as wildfires and earthquakes, with certain changes to the reporting interface.”