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Crowd-sourced data is being harnessed to improve disaster response in one of the world’s megacities.

It’s the world’s second biggest city, located right in the middle of the tropics, with annual monsoon rains and it’s downstream of 13 rivers. And it’s sinking below sea level. It sounds like the stuff of a fictitious emergency services drill, designed to be a worst-case scenario to frighten the life out of officials in charge.

The problem is that it’s real. Very real for the 28 million who call greater Jakarta home and each year deal with the inevitable flooding the comes from the monsoon rains, which are made worse when any of the city’s locks, canals, gates and pumps that diverted the water around the city and out to sea fail.

These facts motivated Dr Etienne Turpin and Dr Tomas Holderness from UOW’s SMART Infrastructure Facility to develop, a system that maps flooding in real-time using crowd-sourced data from Twitter to help emergency response agencies make time-critical decisions and coordinate response efforts. The web-based platform runs on open source software developed by the SMART Infrastructure Facility, called CogniCity, which turns the geotagged Tweets into valuable data.

“You have 28 million people sitting in a large bowl and when it rains that bowl fills up,” Dr Tomas Holderness told ABC radio. “You can’t evacuate people, [you can only] move them around and put them in the driest place you can.” Their solution came from tapping into Jakartans’ existing communications habits. Indonesians are prolific Twitter users. Dr Holderness says about 2 per cent of the world’s Twitter traffic comes from the capital Jakarta, alone.

The social media platform was already used in some organic form as residents warned each other of rising flood waters or parts of the city to avoid. The opportunity the researchers saw was to harness that information, verify and collate it to provide a more complete, real-time image of the situation. A pilot study was conducted during the 2014-2015 monsoon season in collaboration with the Jakarta Emergency Management Agency (BPBD DKI Jakarta), and Twitter Inc., and is a world-first collaboration between Twitter, a university, and a disaster management agency.

“We ask people on Twitter to tell us the situation where they are right now. We’re not passively listening or collecting Tweets, we listen for keywords ‘flood’, or ‘banjir’ in Indonesian, and we send them an automated message asking if they are experiencing flooding and if so to drop us a message and photo to our [Twitter] account (@petajkt). We put that on a publicly available map so everybody can see that information in real-time.”

Customised software built by the team reads hundreds and sometimes thousands of Tweets simultaneously and filters out the irrelevant Tweets to leave only those that provide useful information for residents and the government agencies (BPBD DKI Jakarta). The emergency services providers can click on a location-pinned Tweet to see photos from the location and, combined with their local knowledge, it helps them to make fast and informed disaster response decisions.

In early 2016, the emergency management in Jakarta switched to using the updated system, PetaJakarta 2.0, full time. The latest iteration involves expanded data collection to include other data sources, such as government information, river gauges and citizen journalism. “We’re collecting reports from whatever they’re using and putting that on a map that everyone can see, to help people make informed decisions as well as enabling the government to access the data in real time,” Dr Holderness says.

Since the project’s official launch by Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama in December 2014, thousands of people have reported flood problems to via their mobile devices. At peak times, handled more than 3,000 users per hour. Over the course of the 2014-2015 monsoon, sent 89,000 invitations to citizens in Jakarta as a call to action to confirm flood conditions, gaining more than two million Twitter impressions.

The Guardian reported that five major floods hit Jakarta in 2015, sparking more than 100,000 flood-related Twitter conversations in the city. In February 2015, was able to map 1,000 flooding sites across the city in real-time. The resulting flood map was viewed more than 160,000 times, helping citizens negotiate their city safely. BPBD DKI was also able to use the data to verify flood-affected areas and respond to emergencies more efficiently.

“Due to its prevalent use, rich multimedia capabilities, and geolocation parameters, Twitter sees huge amounts of valuable data being shared by its users. And, as we’ve seen with the project, CogniCity has the ability to make sense of this information in the context of disaster management so it can be analysed and acted upon,” Dr Turpin said. The system was featured in the 2015 World Disasters Report. The report, commissioned by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, praises as a case study of community-level responses to disasters.

“We are interested in doing research through urban design and urban co-management, and the only way to do that research is to actually do the work,” Dr Turpin told JJK magazine. “You can’t just study what could work: either the software works institutionally, socially, and technically, or it doesn’t! To study resilience, we have to build resilience—so we have to design it into the existing systems. To study what can be done, we have to build it.”

Importantly, CogniCity is transferable software and could readily be deployed in other cities to address issues such as waste management, transport and traffic congestion, weather emergencies, and even elections and governance. “The city is made of data, people, and infrastructure. Integrating the data that belongs to the city into a meaningful and non-trivial package is important. It’s not just about Tweets on the map, but it’s about exploring social media and also exploring intelligence within the urban network phenomena.

“Data is a resource and it should be shared because it can properly be utilised when a time of need arises,” Dr Turpin said. “PetaJakarta allows you to do just that by connecting the government with citizens to better coordinate vital information. We see this as a first, very small step toward a completely renovated concept of urban design, but we still have a long way to go.”

UOW Global Challenges is a key UOW Global Challenges project helping to address the challenge of Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones and is further supported by Australian National Data Service. The project has also benefited from the first Twitter #DataGrant, awarded to the researchers in April 2014. UOW was only one of six other institutions in the world to gain inaugural access to historical and current Twitter data.

Words by Grant Reynolds and Adam Skinner.
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