GeoinformaticsAward for Flood Monitoring by App

Press Release No. 4/2024
16 January 2024

British Economic and Social Research Council honours project in Brazil with participating geoinformation scientists from Heidelberg

A research team including geoinformation scientists from Heidelberg University has received an award for the Waterproofing Data project that allows people in Brazilian flood zones to prepare for imminent flooding. The researchers received the 2023 ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize endowed with 10,000 pounds sterling awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the “Outstanding societal impact” category for projects of particular social relevance. The research focussed on the question of how local communities in Brazil could be enabled to better protect themselves from the impact of flooding. The results of the project based at the University of Glasgow were fed into a mobile app for flood monitoring and then further developed into a globally available online service at the Heidelberg Institute for Geoinformation Technology (HeiGIT gGmbH).

User interface of the SketchMapTool developed at HeiGIT.

According to experts, nearly one fourth of all inhabitants worldwide live in flood zones, most of them in countries with a low and medium income. To date, little research has focussed on the consequences and the coping strategies that those impacted have developed over generations, according to Prof. Dr João Porto de Albuquerque of the University of Glasgow (Scotland). The researcher launched the “Waterproofing Data” project and carried it out in collaboration with Prof. Dr Alexander Zipf, head of the Geoinformatics research group at the Institute of Geography of Heidelberg University. Experts from Brazil also participated.

The main approach was to actively integrate affected population groups in the research process and give them the opportunity using simple tools to better prepare themselves for flood events. Together with the local inhabitants, the researchers developed methods to better track existing data and to visualise local waters. At the same time, local knowledge can be incorporated through surveys and participatory mappings. The results of the research were then compiled in a mobile app. It offers those in flood-prone areas the ability to personally track flooding risks and get to safety if necessary.

According to Prof. Zipf, Managing Director of the Heidelberg Institute for Geoinformation Technology, which is funded by the Klaus Tschira Foundation, more than 400 Brazilian citizen scientists have used the app successfully, including project participants from the city of Jaboatão dos Guararapes in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, which suffered severe flooding in 2022. Thanks to the app, they were able to warn their fellow citizens in time and hence save lives. “In this light, it is the local participants that have earned this award. They show what is possible when there is an easily accessible way to actively involve themselves in preparing for natural catastrophes and thus be better prepared,” states the researcher.

Meanwhile, the mobile app of the “Waterproofing Data” project for flood mapping in Brazil has spawned the SketchMapTool, an online service for participatory mapping that can be used anywhere in the world. This tool is used by both researchers and humanitarian organisations to make local spatial knowledge visible and analysable. The flood zones in Mozambique, for example, were mapped using the tool.

The Economic and Social Research Council is the largest funder in the United Kingdom of economic, social, behavioural, and human data science projects. Each year, the ESRC awards the Celebrating Impact Prize in various categories for projects that have a positive impact on the economy, society, and daily life in the UK and beyond. The prize recipients for 2023 were announced in November.