Digital volunteers to keep an eye on slopes

  • Community
  • Wednesday, 16 Mar 2016

A Bukit Antarabangsa resident explaining the map from which they plot out signs of hazards for data compilation during the community hazard mapping exercise.

Bukit Antarabangsa community provides necessary information to help organisations develop landslide warning app

EVERY time there’s a deluge of rain, residents of Bukit Antarabangsa brace for the worst. Infamous for its many landslides, the community has now developed a system which they hope can work as an early warning system.

The system is a mobile app, to be launched by the end of this month, that enables residents to report signs of landslides such as water ponding, uprooted trees and erosions via their smartphones.

Called SlopeMap, it will show a digital map of the hillside community on which digital volunteers can post sightings of signs.

The app is being developed by SlopeWatch, a community-based organisation focused on landslide and slope safety, in partnership with Japanese civil engineering company OYO Corporation which is providing free consultation.

SlopeWatch programme director Eriko Motoyama said it was a chance meeting that started the ball rolling on the project.

“During a conference on slope safety, we were approached by Oyo Corporation chief country representative Mitsuru Yabe, who asked us if we conducted slope monitoring during heavy rains.

“It made us realise that we only monitored after it had rained or as and when we were free.

“During heavy rains, I would send out SMSes to residents to be alert and look out for any possible signs of slope failure, but that was it.

“Yabe pointed out that there were different hazard signs during periods of heavy rains,” she explained.

She said a similar system could have prevented the 2008 Bukit Antarabangsa landslide which killed five people and destroyed 14 houses.

“Prior to the landslide, there were resident sightings of muddy water flowing down,” she said.

Using rainfall information and hazard sightings, the group hopes to find a correlation between the two sets of data to come up with an early warning system.

SlopeWatch chairman Abdul Razak Bahrom said the rainfall information would come from the group’s own rainfall gauge machine in Bukit Antarabangsa.

The app enables users to report landslides or signs of slope failure in their vicinity and collect user-acquired imagery (pictures and videos) showing the extent of damage.

Yabe (left) installing the rain gauge machine in Bukit Antarabangsa. It is the first community-owned rainfall device in the country.
Yabe (left) installing the rain gauge machine in Bukit Antarabangsa. It is the first community-owned rainfall device in the country.

“The system will be synced with the real-time rainfall data from the rain gauge. The more contribution to the system, the more data-rich we become. This will increase its accuracy as an early warning system,” said Razak.

He said the app worked similar to Waze, where users can sign in to report based on their location.

“For example, when it starts to rain, residents will get a notification that 20mm of rain is falling and a prompt to report any sign.

“We call this citizen signs because traditional monitoring or forecasting falls in the domain of government agencies where inputs come from sensors and instruments. But here we rely on humans as sensors, as a form of crowd sourcing,” he said.

Learning from the past

Citing the 2014 landslide disaster in Hiroshima, Yabe said the similar terrain to Bukit Antarabangsa could provide a learning opportunity for both countries.

Following torrential rain in which a month’s worth fell in a single day, several landslides were triggered near a mountain beside the city of Hiroshima. It was reported that 74 people lost their lives in that disaster.

“One of the main reasons why the landslide in Hiroshima occurred is that the residential area was developed close to the foot of the mountain, which can be prone to landslide.

(From left) Yabe, Abdul Razak and Eriko with the community hazard maps created by the residents.
(From left) Yabe, Abdul Razak and Eriko with the community hazard maps created by the residents.

“Also, residents were not aware of similar events in their area and did not understand the hazards or signs of slope failure.

“Combined with the high rainfall within a short period, these factors led to the high number of casualties during the disaster,” he said.

Following the disaster, Yabe said residents in the affected area had begun prevention and mitigation activities at community level.

“These activities include disaster drills, drills using hazard maps to check suitable sites in the event of a disaster, as well as lectures by experts to communicate correct knowledge on disaster prevention,” he explained.

“Because this area has the same physical conditions and built-up environment like Hiroshima, it is good to have a programme that can avert similar disaster,” he explained.

Community Hazard Mapping

In preparation for the release of the app, SlopeWatch conducted a community hazard mapping exercise in January with Bukit Antarabangsa residents association heads.

“Residents have indigenous knowledge where they are familiar with their surroundings. So, we asked them to plot out signs that they have seen and will see if any of these events match with a certain amount of rainfall.

“The workshop that we gave was for them to do a ‘brain dump’, where they note down all they knew about past events and what they perceived as hazards.

“They also marked out hidden streams, embankments and other physical features of the terrain,” said Eriko, adding that some 60 people from 20 neighbourhoods took part in the exercise.

The devastation caused by the 2008 landslide in Bukit Antarabangsa. — filepic
The devastation caused by the 2008 landslide in Bukit Antarabangsa. — filepic

Eriko said the next step would be to teach the community to use the app to start reporting when it rained.

“It is a way for them to contribute towards signs of landslide hazard community mapping,” she added.

From this, Eriko said they hoped to have an early response system in place.

“There has been some interest in resident-initiated evacuation or at least take some measures to protect ourselves from any potential situation. It is usually managed by the authorities, but it takes time for evacuation notices and first responders to arrive.

“That is why we are first targeting the heads of residents associations for the community mapping,” she said.

However, Eriko and Razak said the app was only as useful as the digital volunteers.

“Crowd sourcing is only as good as the numbers, so it is getting them to participate that will be a challenge,” they said.

For now, SlopeWatch and Oyo are collaborating on implementing the system in Bukit Antarabangsa.

“But if other communities are interested, we can teach them as the software can be modified to fit any location,” said Razak.

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