Building earthquake resilience in at-risk communities

Author: Rob Baxter
Posted: 15 Jun 2017 | 13:33

Earthquakes have caused over three-quarters of a million deaths already in this century, and economic losses of over a quarter of a trillion US dollars since 1980, make them by far the most destructive of the natural hazards. EPCC has been involved in developing a new app that will lessen the danger of aftershocks.

Recent devastating earthquakes in Nepal and Italy have once again illustrated the need for better understanding, and more accurate operational forecasting, of aftershock sequences to assist emergency response: from risk assessment for civil protection and humanitarian NGO staff, to the planning of field hospital and temporary relocation sites, to logistical planning.  

Investment in protecting against earthquakes remains a low priority across much of the developing world. 

Until proven resilient construction becomes more available, high impact earthquake research must focus on evidence-based, targeted, socially tuned, resilience building; saving the maximum number of lives per dollar invested.

Seismology meets mobile phone

Funded by the UK’s Global Challenge Research Fund, REAR (Research for Emergency Aftershock Response) is a first step towards connecting earthquake science, the best contemporary methods in social science and the environmental humanities, with the revolution in digital communication and mobile phone technology to improve the resilience of communities in the developing world to major earthquakes. One of the key project partners is Ireland-based NGO Concern Worldwide, which plays a critical role by guiding the interaction between these developing ideas and the humanitarian NGO end-users. 

It is well known in seismology that aftershocks produce more fatalities and damage than would be expected from earthquakes of the same magnitude; they generate shaking in areas where much of the building stock has already been damaged, and where poor decision-making by the population can have fatal consequences. They also represent a significant impediment to emergency response efforts. 

While we cannot reliably forecast individual main earthquakes, the statistics and physical science of aftershocks and operational forecasting has developed rapidly, and it is now possible to make actionable forecasts of the probability of both their location and the size, with full quantification of the uncertainties involved. 

REAR aims to develop a simple mobile phone app that can be used by a network of volunteers in a given area, not to predict or measure main earthquakes but, given suitable placement (for example, in wall-mounted overnight charging stations) to enable mobile phones to be used as sensors which can measure the response of individual buildings to small seismic events. In turn, data recorded by the phone will be transmitted to a central hub where an understanding of the risk to buildings can be assessed, and – hopefully – used to mitigate the effects of a future main quake. 

EPCC’s role takes in both app development and the initial back-end data collection framework, but more than the technical angle the volunteer community approach is key to the success of REAR.

Correct community response to aftershocks reduces subsequent loss of life in earthquake-stricken areas but local response can be delayed or inhibited by social, cultural and political factors. This means that effective, large-scale user engagement with appropriate information, so essential in emergency response, requires investment in developing public awareness at scale, designing effective co-learning across multiple stakeholder groups, and building understanding of the issues that might limit or enable user engagement. 

One of the hopes of REAR is that the network of citizen-science volunteers might use the custom designed, multi-function app to cooperate in the collection of data, giving them ownership of the hazards assessment. The same app might create a community ready to receive resilience-building advice and education precisely tailored to their level of risk. The new data streams could then be used in current campaigns by the UN and NGOs to inform evidence-based reconstruction following a crisis. 

REAR has assembled an inspiringly multidisciplinary team, many of whose members are working on developing-world issues for the first time. We are building foundations for the provision of near real-time operational forecasts of aftershock location and magnitude probabilities, based on dense networks of traditional seismometers. We are also exploring the global use of mobile phones, both as high density seismometer networks and as tools for community engagement and empowerment during emergency response. 

The project will catalyse work with emergency providers and threatened communities to explore and exploit the social and cultural promoters and barriers to effective intervention. It’s truly exciting to be involved!

Images: (Top) Ratna Khatri, 88 years of age, sits in the makeshift shelter her family have built since their home in the Dolakha District of Nepal was destroyed by the earthquake, whilst her granddaughter goes through the box of supplies distributed by Concern Worldwide. Photographer: Brian Sokol/ Panos Pictures for Concern Worldwide/Nepal/2015

(Below right) The CitiSeisApp interface showing information gathered from mobile phone sensors.

Authors

John McCloskey, Chair in Natural Hazards Science, School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh

Rob Baxter, Group Manager, EPCC