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MyFloodPlan: The personalized flood plan App

I took part in the HackTheTownHall flood-relief hackathon at the weekend. Team MyFloodPlan (me, Manoj, Lusine, Anthony and Sanjeet) built an App (try it) that created personalised flood plans; tell us where you live and we tell you number of hours before the flood water reaches you, plus providing a list of recommended actions for that time frame, with the timing of the recommended actions being influenced by personal circumstances such as age (older people likely to take longer to do things than younger people), medical situation and risk aversion. The App has five prespecified users at various locations in the worst hit flooding areas around west London in February 2014. UK Government recommendations are basically to move things to higher ground (e.g., upstairs) and just as the water arrives at your door turn off the gas and electric.

The App used the Ordnance Survey Terrain 50 data (height above sea level of 50 meter squares covering the whole UK and accurate to 0.01 0.1 meters) to find the difference in height between the user’s location and the last reported local flood height (we faked this number), multiplied this by how fast the flood water is rising (we picked 100 10 cm per hour) to find out how many minutes it would take for the flood to reach the user’s location. In practice it would be easy to get the current flood height, the user could simply walk to the current edge of the flood and tell the App where it was; data on rate of height increase/decrease could come from the Environment agency flood warning site.

The Ordnance survey has height data at 5 meter square resolution and supplied a sample for an area near Bristol. The accuracy of GPS is nowhere near good enough for obtaining height data. Altitude data for most of the world is available thanks to the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission; the grid resolution is 30 meters in the US and 90 meters outside the US.

I thought of creating a 2-D equation that interpolated between all known points (using say, cubic splines), this would smooth out height discontinuities and probably improve the estimates for most locations. But given the large unknowns in rate of change of flood water height, interpolation seemed like over-kill (given how smooth the data is over much of the UK this approach might be away of reducing data storage/access).

The big unknown in all of this is modeling changes in flood water level. In February there were announcements that gave maximum levels. The ideal situation is for the Environment agency to provide a predicted flood water level time line API. They probably have the predictions, but given the degree of uncertainties present in all models I would understand any reluctance in making this information available in real time.

On the ground monitoring the progress of a flood would only take a few people on bikes to cover a whole town, reporting back to a local system that kept everybody updated. Real-time flood level tracking is not a big data problem (prediction and maintaining historical data are) and a handful of people using modest computer resources could easily provide a personalized flood warning service to locals.

Team MyFloodPlan was made up of Team prompt Parking (minus Bob), from a previous hackathon, plus two other people, and these provided a useful reminder of the mindset needed for a hackathon. Producing a working App in 24 hours requires keeping things simple and doing what needs to be done; sometimes outrageous simplifications have to be made and the most awful coding solutions have to be lived with. Our two new members (a business consultant and very clever technical guy) were into considering all the issues and how they connected, and looking to keep all potential customers happy; all good stuff to do when there is plenty of time and resources available, but fatal mistakes in a short hackathon. We spent all day going in circles around the original idea (team Prompt Parking are very laid back and prone to gossiping about tech with anybody who happens to wonder by), when the two left for the night the circling died down and within a few hours we had the basic core of the App coded and working.

The oversimplifications made by team PromptParking, along with our willingness to ignore ‘low volume’ customers left our two newbies exasperated and baffled. However, the aim is to produce the best minimum viable product, not an impressive report covering all the issues

How can flood data be monetized using an App? Floods are too rare for the MyFloodPlan App to provide a regular income. Perhaps during a flood it could cheer people up by displaying adds for holidays in sunny destinations, provide suggestions for new furniture, decorating ideas, etc and if the flood had not yet reached them the best place to sell their home.

The best money making App I could think of was one that provides flooding information to potential home buyers. The DoesThisLocationFlood App would show pictures of previous floods in the area (picture gathering would be so much easier if Twitter did not remove location information from posted pictures), along with height above local water features and distance from them. It would be great to tie in with online home purchase sites, but these make money from the seller and so are unlikely to see any added value in the DoesThisLocationFlood App.

The MyFloodPlan App came second, beaten by an App that allowed users to report and see events in a flood affected area (and made great use of text messaging). Our App was not very interactive, i.e., flood arrives in x hours, do these things. We should have been more adventurous; having been gone down the route planning rabbit hole before I shied away from figuring out which road were flooded and suggesting alternative routes (the route planners in OpenStreetMap do seem to be improving).

Thanks to Milverton for organizing the event and the knowledgeable and helpful people from the Environment agency and Ordnance survey.

A request for future events: A method of turning off the lights so people don’t have to sleep under the tables to stop the motion detectors turning the lights on.

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