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Is Flood Map Due for a Big Data Make-Over?

One of the staples of many cities’ and regions’ disaster planning and readiness is the flood map showing areas and, if you zoom in, structures at risk from floods of a given magnitude. These are published by FEMA in the U.S. and equivalent government agencies in other countries.

Flood maps are not glamorous or technologically exciting things.  They have done their work for many years and, provided that they are up to date, are an effective way of communicating a generalized level of risk. However, they are far from perfect, and it is possible to identify a number of improvements that could be made with some of the Internet of Things and big data technologies now available. In so doing, the flood map could become a poster child for the idea of smart cities.

See also: The 2 New Realities Because of Big Data

First, flood maps are regularly not up date, because they are updated on a five- or 10-year cycle (or, in poorer or or less capably governed locations, whenever funds are made available). In the interim, new understanding of weather patterns, sea level rise and the like can change the definition of appropriate flood scenarios to apply, and entirely new settlement and urbanization patterns can emerge. Flood maps would clearly be more useful if they were more dynamic – if the timescale for their updating was compressed.

At the same time, because of their scale, flood maps cannot really capture localized variations in risk. The example below shows how these may apply even at the scale of individual homes, in this case in Florida.

(With thanks to Coastal Risk Consulting, an IBM Business Partner)

If this local variation was just applicable to residential properties, that would be one thing (although bad enough for the owners of the higher-risk homes!). But if the variation made the difference between having part of the local phone or internet system working or not, or if it meant that a hospital that was thought to be safe was actually at risk of its ER wing being under 18 inches of water, that would clearly be something else again, because it could badly de-rail emergency response. Flood maps clearly need to be more granular – more detailed – as well as more dynamic.

Improvements in dynamism are already being made, as the availability of commercial mapping services from Google, TomTom and others might make one suspect. These are updated rather more frequently than five to 10 years! There are also considerable improvements in granularity now available, as the above example showed – companies like Coastal Risk Consulting will provide LIDAR-based risk assessments at the level of individual properties. Different flood models can be plugged in to allow a city, business or a homeowner (or their insurers) to assess risk arising at individual locations from different scenarios.

See also: Flood Insurance at the Crossroads

But the improvements in dynamism and granularity could, in theory, go much further. The concept of elevation (above sea level or above a river) probably brings to mind something that is a given, fixed and invariable, unless you happen to be looking at geological timescales. But there are factors that can mediate the value of elevation that operate on a much shorter timescale. Consider a building that is 10 feet above sea level but protected by a levee 10 feet high. It may be said to have 20 feet of “virtual elevation,” inasmuch as it would require a flood crest of more than 20 feet above sea level to flood the property. Similarly, take a property 10 feet above sea level but in the area covered by a flood pump or storm drain that can remove 1.5 feet of water from that area. The property may be said to have 11.5 feet of “virtual elevation.” A property may also have a virtual elevation of less than its physical elevation if, for example, building work or a wall or pavement channels additional water toward it.

The point about virtual elevation is that it may change in any given location by the year as, say, gophers undermine the levee; by the month, as an area is paved; by the day, if the flood pump is being maintained; or even by the minute if the pump suddenly fails (perhaps when its power supply is compromised by flooding elsewhere)! Virtual elevation is a highly dynamic, highly granular concept that a typical flood map would fail to capture – yet one that may make the difference between a critical asset being operable or not, or an evacuation route being open or not.  A city faced with an oncoming storm-surge or a rainfall event upstream of where it is located might therefore need to ask “what’s our virtual elevation – our disposition – right now?” The answer might make a significant difference to its standing emergency management plans and require significant adjustments.

All of which tends to imply that the traditional flood map really needs a makeover. At a minimum, while it still provides the baseline, the structures and urban extents that it shows need to be updated, say, annually; making the flood map part of a more interactive tool that allowed for different weather scenarios to be applied, say, would also be a step forward.

In reality, the flood map would represent one end of a continuum stretching to something much more contemporaneous. Using the same core baseline data, changes to virtual elevation could be assessed as plans are approved or building permits are issued, or as assets are maintained and their records are updated.

In this way the flood map would illustrate the observation that “big data” should really be labeled “small data” – but at enormous scale. If the extra data flows can be added to improve the flood map’s dynamism to, say, a daily or weekly update, and its granularity to the individual property or asset level, it would be transformed from some form or reference baseline that may or may not be up to date at any given point in time, to a live tool that supports day to day decision making.

Stand Up for Robin Williams. . .

On Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, we lost Robin Williams. He was a brilliant actor and comic…a man most of us grew up with. We knew him as a funny guy, an alien, a genie, a nanny, an inspirational teacher and so much more. We also knew he struggled with depression, addiction and possibly bipolar disorder.

Collectively, we grieve for his loss. Williams had an uncanny ability to make us smile. Even when playing more dramatic roles, he brought light, laughter and inspiration to our lives.

We grieve, too, for thousands of other people who have died by suicide. Fathers, mothers, sisters, daughters, sons, brothers…suicide isn’t just about the person who dies. Its painful ripples spread far and wide, affecting every one of us.

We believe every suicide death is preventable, that not another person should die in desperation and alone. Those with behavioral health challenges like major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia have suicide rates 10 to 15 times greater than the general population. Yet, millions survive, and many find a way to thrive. Recovery is possible!

The bitter irony of Williams’ death was the support he gave for another disease that takes lives: cancer. Williams was a strong backer of St. Jude’s Research Center and Stand Up to Cancer. He would visit cancer patients, sometimes in their own homes, bringing joy into lives that would invariably be cut short, just as Williams’ was.

The cancer prevention movement has been so effective in getting people involved – in prevention, in fundraising, in advocacy.  Now many people – whether or not they’ve been directly affected by cancer – Stand Up in solidarity to help fight the battle. They stand shoulder to shoulder with people who are fighting for their lives? They stand to honor those who’ve passed with dignity. They got people like Robin Williams to lean in, and say, “I care. What can I do to help?”

The suicide prevention movement can learn a lot from the successes of the cancer prevention movement.

How has the cancer prevention movement achieved its goals? It advanced science and promoted stories of hope and recovery. Those who want to stand up for suicide prevention can do this, too.

As Dr. Sean Maguire in the movie “Good Will Hunting,” Williams counsels Matt Damon’s Will Hunting on life, love and grief before telling him, “Your move, chief.”

Now it’s our move. Let’s honor Williams’ memory, and that of every person who has died by suicide, by making suicide a thing of the past.  What can you do to Stand Up for suicide prevention?

  • Reach out and ask others who may be going through difficult life challenges, “Are you okay? What can I do to support you?” Let them know they are not alone and that you can help them link to resources.
  • Promote the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) everywhere – schools, workplaces, faith communities, neighborhoods.
  • Volunteer and participate in suicide prevention work like community walks, town hall meetings, crisis line support and more.
  • Donate to suicide prevention organizations.
  • Learn about the real facts about suicide and the strategies that have been shown to prevent it.
  • Then bring others into the circle – your healthcare providers, your employer, your educators and so on. Elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority.
  • Ask your healthcare plan and provider to join you.

As a society, we’ve stood up for so many other important things. It’s time for us to stand up to suicide.

When we all stand up and move together, we create a movement. Together, our voices can create significant change in systems, in policy, in funding and in the general view of suicide. We can restore dignity and offer hope and empowerment and save lives.

This article was written by Sally Spencer-Thomas with four other members of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention:

  • David Covington, LPC, MBA, Recovery Innovations and Zero Suicide Advisory Group
  • John Draper, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and The Way Forward Suicide Attempt Survivors Task Force
  • Mike Hogan, Hogan Health Services and Zero Suicide Advisory Group
  • Eduardo Vega, Mental Health Association of San Francisco and The Way Forward Suicide Attempt Survivors Task Force

#standup2suicide #zerosuicide #wayforward