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New generation, cloud-based IT services can improve the situational awareness in disasters via the involvement of citizens as human sensors



Climate change is claimed to be behind several types of disasters, particularly floods.  “Scientists say heavier rainfall, an effect of the warming atmosphere, will lead to more landslides”. Thus, landslides are expected to be on rising.

Rescue operations in most disasters are heavily dependent on accurate situational awareness. Having accurate and complete information is the key for making good decisions. A large amount of such information is contextual, that is, it is variable and needs to be taken from the disaster scenario by different means.   

While "Be safe! Stay away! Let professionals do the work!"  is the typical approach taken by rescue operators with regard to people, there are also advantages of public engagement considering that “Citizens generally have a better knowledge of the stricken area and know the daily routines of their family, friends and neighbors. This means that they can help in describing affected areas as well as in localizing possible victims”.

Inspired by the last sentence, we propose a framework based on these concepts and describe the set of actions that would make it possible. Below we list seven actions that would support this proposal.

A1. Creation of an emergency response private cloud that provides computing resources enough to serve all the requests effectively,

A2. Development of a suite of Personal Safety Assistants (PSAs) that, running on citizens’ mobile devices, can act as a source of people- and location-aware information from a damaged area.

A3. Development of a context management server able to store, analyze and transform information coming from the PSAs.

A4. Development of a dashboard where all the context of the emergency is available for decision makers.

A5. New policies aimed at changing the view of citizens as passive targets of rescue actions need to be defined.

A6. Education of citizens in the new policies and practices,

A7. To create, in the mid-term, a true community of practice in the Emergency Management domain. 

Category of the action


What actions do you propose?

Two contrasting scenarios, yet with similar characteristics.

2014, Oso, USA. At least eight people have been killed by a huge landslide in the north-western US state of Washington. [1]

2011, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Following a deluge in which a month's worth of rain fell in just 24 hours, a series of mud landslides similar to the one which hit Oso claimed at least 903 lives. [2]

As we all know, death tolls are highly related to poverty and lack of planning resources. In many places, people live in areas of risk because they have no alternatives. Authorities do not have the resources to reallocate this people to less risky areas. In the event of landslides in high populated areas, live and property losses are expected to be high. Besides, “…it is feared that a landslide in the future may create death and destruction never previously known.” [3]


Rescue operations in most disasters are heavily dependent on accurate situational awareness. The environment can change dramatically and it may be very difficult to plan an effective rescue operation without  a clear idea of what and where to look for victims. There are several images that illustrate this difference and the difficulty to relate before and after images as in [5]. Technology, such as satellite images, can help, but they can take time to retrieve and they lack important contextual data. That is where crowdsourcing can play an important role. We claim that “human sensors” with adequate support can be an invaluable source of contextual information.


A change of attitude

 Be safe! Stay away! Let professionals do the work! While this can be justified by at least two main reasons: “The mass assault of volunteers wanting to help and the convergence of people and materials can cause logistic problems” and “Volunteer rescuers trying to help can become a casualty themselves”, there are also advantages of public engagement such as “Citizens generally have a better knowledge of the stricken area and know the daily routines of their family, friends and neighbors. This implicates that they can help in localizing possible victims” [4]. 

Figure 1- The typical attitude of Response teams (a) the situation immediate after the disaster and (b) situation after the control of emergency responders (citizens as spectators).

There is a wide range of attitudes of citizens affected by a disaster. The most common and natural is the “run for your (and your family) lives”. In a danger situation, people try to escape from danger as quick as possible. Although this is not a straightforward action (we will came back to this later), once they are out of risk they become spectators. In contrast, the other extreme attitude is that where people attempt to work as rescuers themselves, working side by side with rescue operators. This is particularly true when victims are close members of the family. As we mentioned before, this attitude is counterproductive, except in the absence of official responders.

We are interested in those people who are willing to help but do not engage in rescue operations. We value the work of citizens playing the role of information providers or “human sensors”, which can be considered an intermediate role of engagement. On one hand they do not get involved in rescue operations and on the other they are willing to help by playing an active role as information providers in order to improve rescue operations.

Figure 2- New paradigm: Citizens playing an information provider role (c) rather than simple spectators

The use of local people in disaster settings to provide specific information became possible with the advances of mobile and smartphone technologies and with the advent of social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus. As a matter of fact, many works about the use of social networks in emergencies have been presented in research conferences (e.g. ISCRAM, in the last few years. This work proposes a framework based on these concepts and describes the set of actions that would make this possible. However, unlike other works, we think that emergency services should not only rely on the availability of social networks due to several reasons. First, the world-wide scope of social networks may be a problem when trying to assess the reliability (e.g. in terms of locality) of a source. Second, their general-purpose nature obliges using hashtag-like markup to select the posts to be analyzed to get situational awareness; this can be an error-prone and costly process. Third, there are information requirements that are not fulfilled by social network profiles; for instance, health information that must be accessible by medical responders, but kept private to others.

The power of Crowdsourcing is there, and we just have to set up the right environment for its use. Two basic requirements need to be met: on one hand, connectivity to link all the crowd devices with the servers; on the other hand, scalability to allow hundreds or thousands of interactions in very short time intervals. Despite that Internet access is granted in most countries, a large scale disaster could make it unusable; however, in these cases, ad-hoc networks can be set up in areas affected by disasters to provide connectivity, so we will not deal with this issue. And scalability is nowadays supported by the cloud computing infrastructures.

Based on these premises, our proposal may be realized through the following technical actions:

A1. Creation of an emergency response private cloud that provides computing resources enough to serve all the requests effectively. Such a cloud would provide computing and storage services to the different applications. The cloud will host a distributed architecture where information providers and processors cooperate to produce an improved situational awareness of the emergency. Although it is intended to be accessible to every mobile device running a client application (see action A2 below), there may be strong privacy requirements related to personal health data that make it recommendable to set up the cloud as private, and to provide anonymity whenever required.

A2. Development of a suite of Personal Safety Assistants (PSAs) that, running on citizens’ mobile devices, can act as a source of people- and location-aware information from a damaged area.

When installed on a device for the first time, a user must register to provide basic personal data and information such as a health profile including allergies, blood group, and any other relevant information. From this moment on, the PSA will run in the mobile device as a service in the background, so that it will be subscribed to emergency events managed by the Civil Defense authority.

Examples of use of the PSA are the following:
- The civil defense authority sends selective warning messages to people in a threatened area. Such messages are captured by the PSA, which shows an alert to the user.
- A citizen uses his or her device to request help (for instance, to get an evacuation route from the current position to a safe place).
- The authority send an information request to people in a specific area in order to get contextual information. Then, the user can provide the requested information as text, images, audio or video.


The PSA can rely on social structures to keep connected a user with other users of his or her interest. Specifically, the idea of Google+ circle can be very useful in order to define which users should be informed of any event happened to the user (e.g. family, work mates, friends… with different levels of interaction). There should be special circles devoted solely to emergency settings, without interference from regular circles or groups.


A3. Development of a context management server able to store, analyze and transform information coming from the PSAs.     

A4. Development of a dashboard where all the context of the emergency is available to decision makers. The context may be raw data, that is, just shown as they were captured, or can be processed using different data fusion techniques to provide more elaborated knowledge.

Technical actions must be complemented with political and social actions aimed at fostering a cultural change in the society. Specifically:

A5. New policies aimed at changing the view of citizens as passive targets of rescue actions need to be defined. Such policies should recognize the value of the crowd in the increasing of situational awareness, and enforce the participation of citizens as active information providers.


A6. Education of citizens in the new policies and practices, in order to make them sensible to their role of crowd members, with their rights and responsibilities. Educative actions can include drills, training sessions or even courses at different school levels to enforce a responsible behaviour in every type of disaster.

The PENSAD proposal is the first step towards more resilient societies. However, an isolated initiative is not enough. There is need for more elaborated initiatives that provide persistence to the modernization efforts. To achieve this, we propose the following mid-term action:

A7. To create, in the mid-term,  a true community of practice in the Emergency Management domain, as suggested by [6]. Such a community would integrate citizens, researchers and practitioners, along with authority, to develop a number of programs to increase the resilience of the society before a disaster.  


In the 21st century, any public-oriented policy must be leveraged by an IT technological infrastructure that enables the capabilities of distributed and mobile computing. Smartphones and tablets are the natural way to get citizens involved  in emergency management. This represents a significant advance due to several reasons:

- The situational awareness of the response teams increases with information sent from eventually thousands of devices held by citizens. The (citizen,device) pairs become a kind of human sensors generating information that can be fused at the command and control systems to get a better picture of the requirements at any point of the response. A typical case is that of some evacuation path that gets unusable due to some building collapse; having this information is very valuable to update pre-recorded maps with contextual annotations.

- The smartphone acts as a surrogate for the citizen, storing a profile that includes details of the owner’s health, family, friends, etc. This way, improved rescue actions can be dispatched which prioritize citizens with special medical needs, and citizens can be tracked to inform their relatives about the situation, and many similar context-sensitive services.

Unlike traditional broadcast media such as TV and Radio, mobile devices are bi-directional, that is, they can not only push relevant information about the context of the emergency, but also receive relevant information for the owner’s safety. This opens new possibilities for the delivery of personalized information from the Command & Control to the citizens as mentioned above. Specifically, having citizens located is a very valuable asset in order to establish rescue priorities, distribute response forces according to the actual needs, and anticipating to any new scenario the emergency can lead to. Also, personalized messages can be sent to the citizens’ devices, making the interaction more friendly and close to the sentiments of the affected persons. And more interesting, personalized safe evacuation routes can be calculated in real time from the current location of a citizen.  This way, efficient evacuation policies can be implemented from fresh information.

PENSAD is all of the above put in one framework. 


Who will take these actions?

- The civil defense authority should provide the legal basis and the technological context supporting the PENSAD approach.

- The civil defense authority should  create and manage emergency response educational programs for citizens at all levels (from children to elder people)

- Citizens should embrace the approach by downloading and installing the PSA on their mobile devices.

- Organizations should transform their emergency plans into active objects able to interoperate with the Civil Defense Command & Control systems. 

Where will these actions be taken?

PENSAD can be deployed in every place with Internet access.  In the trial phase, the bandwidth requirements will not be high. However, if it were used in a real case, with a high number of potential devices interacting with the servers, requirements can grow.

Being this proposal a result of the joint work of groups from Spain and Brazil, the initial tests would be performed with simulated actors in Valencia and Rio de Janeiro, respectively. They will serve to tune up the different components of the system at both client and server sides.

Next, PENSAD will be used in drills with large number of actual users. The intended scenarios are the campuses of the universities of the participating groups.Civil defense authorities will be invited to share the experience. From there on, PENSAD will be assumed by the government to start pilot projects in different parts of the countries.

What are other key benefits?

The educational efforts proposed may result in a change of the attitude of citizens towards emergency management. If people are more prepared, they will for sure be a  great complement of the roles played by response forces, leaving their passive status they have been assigned to so far.

Such a new role can go further and affect other stages of the emergency management lifecycle. Taking people in consideration, planning may be done in a different way, resulting in an overall increase of resilience of the society as a whole. Moreover, engaged citizens can help in the elaboration and especially the improvement of emergency plans by means of public participation processes where they can provide feedback about some details they are knowledgeable on.

The PSA is going to be just one of the many utilities that will be used in the future to establish fluid communication channels between governments and citizens.

What are the proposal’s costs?

The costs of some parts of the proposal are difficult to assess. On one hand, the prices of cloud services vary from one provider to another, so we can only made estimations of their price. On the other hand, and according to the timeline shown below, we offer a estimate amount of the costs of the first iteration of the project, consisting of the development of a proof of concept of the framework.

A1. the costs are derived from the cloud technology use, which depends on the providers.

According to the Google Cloud pricing schema [ available at , accessed on july 2014] and assuming specific sizes for messages sent from/to mobile devices, and the average size of a personalized evacuation plan yields the following costs:

-      0.01$ per each 10,000 evacuation plans provided.

-      0.01€ per each 1,000 log tuple insertions

-      0.026€/month  per GB stored

In a real emergency situation such as the evacuation of a building due to a fire alert, where 100 users need to be evacuated and there are 2 rescue teams, and considering that:

-      Each user needs 2 different evacuation plans

-      Each user generates 100 log actions

-      Each user requests help 3 times

-      Each rescue team demands information about the building

-      Each rescue team demands information about users 10 times

-      Each  rescue team demands information about a specific user 5 times

The total cost of the management of this emergency situation is: 0.01 + (0.01 * 10) + 0.026 = 0.136$

A2. Development of the Personal Safety assistants:

- PSA for Android: US$ 7,000

- PSA for iOS: US$ 7,000

- PSA for Windows 8 for  Mobile: US$ 7,000

TOTAL: US$ 21,000


A3. Development of the Context Server :US$ 7,000

A4. Development of the Command & Control Dashboard: US$ 12,000

A6. Definition and development of educational programs: dependent of the size and scope


Time line

PENSAD is principally a short term proposal: a proof of concept can be available within the first 12 months of the project.  The high technological change pace, however, requires an iterative approach to the project development. After the first iteration, some user validation must be performed which can result in changes to be developed in subsequent iterations.

Besides technical tool development activities, those actions related with education and community building will have a slower pace, resulting in one to two year long depending of several factors.

Related proposals

- We Are Ready (

-CrowdCriMa - a complete Crowsourced Crisis Management Platform (  

- Mitigating Disaster Risks Using a Crowd Sourcing Cross Platform Mobile Apps (


[1] US landslide: Rising death toll in Washington state disaster:

[2] Washington State Mudslide:10 Worst Landslide Disasters in History:

 [3] Tragedy in Washington state: Why climate change will make mudslides more common:

[4] N. Oberijé, Civil response after disasters - the use of civil engagement in disaster abatement:


[5] Before and after: high resolution images of the Brazil landslides

[6] Turoff, M., Hiltz, S.R.: Information Seeking Behavior and Viewpoints of Emergency Preparedness and Management Professionals Concerned with Health and Medicine, Report to the National Library of Medicine (February 2008), (accessed on 6/14/08)

[7] Ruiz, A., Núñez, A., Penadés, M.C:, Canós, J.H., Borges, M. SUCRE: Supporting Users, Controllers and Responders in Emergencies. Proc. of the 11th International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM 2014). State College (PA), USA, May 2014.