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Using big data for disaster planning

Using big data for disaster planning 

As natural and manmade disasters continue to occur, having a better line of sight on disaster planning means being able to respond much more efficiently. And it’s not just planning – being able to actually predict these types of disasters is getting closer to becoming a reality.

To this end, IBM and Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) are teaming up to help make British Columbia the smartest coast on the planet.

IBM recently announced a three-year, multi-million dollar project with Ocean Networks. The project will equip BC with a monitoring and prediction system to respond to off-shore accidents, tsunamis, and other natural disasters.

The new “Smart Oceans BC” program will use marine sensors and data analysis to improve environmental stewardship and public and marine safety along the West Coast.

The project will monitor vessel traffic, waves, currents and water quality in major shipping arteries. It’ll also include a system to predict the impact of off-shore earthquakes, tsunamis, storm surge, and underwater landslides.

IBM is investing $12 million in cloud computing infrastructure, analytics software, services and skills training to support this next phase of the system at Ocean Networks Canada. The company will help enable scientists at ONC to make smarter decisions, based on data analysis.

“We’re going to be able to take these large data assets that are coming in off the sensors 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and start to interpret them,” said Peter Madden, high performance computing solutions manager, Western Region, IBM Canada. “Then with the interpretation of that data through the various scientists, politicians and educators, we’ll be in a position to actually help make some decision support recommendations around it.”

ONC will use an IBM on-premise cloud to run simulations on earthquakes and tsunamis. The goal is to predict their behaviour and potential impact on coastal areas. Information that will benefit a wide range of audiences, from public safety agencies to public transportation, tourism, and other industries operating in the area. 

Along with public sector benefits, the project marks a milestone in the path to disaster prediction. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“Imagine a world 10, 20, 30 years from now, where we can predict earthquakes, we know exactly where we should and shouldn’t build, and have policy in place to support that,” said Madden. “We know how to respond to both natural and manmade disasters, and we know how to do that both time and cost-effectively. I’ll say we’re at end of job at that point [but] there’s a lot of work to be done ahead of us for sure.”

According to IBM, big data is the quickly becoming the next big ‘natural resource.’ The growing amounts of big data hold a great many opportunities. But there is a current shortage of data scientists able to extract meaning from the deluge of data.

As part of IBM’s commitment to smarter oceans, funding will go towards internships for over a dozen students from BC universities to build subject matter expertise and practical experience in this emerging industry. The students will represent a broad cross-section of disciplines including MBAs, researchers, programmers, and biologists.

Additionally, projects like these hold great potential for the future of technology and big data.

“It’s the perfect intersection of where we talk about the intersection of IT on people’s daily lives,” said Madden. “We’re all familiar with mobile examples and everything else, but I think fundamentally we use technology to help us try to make better decisions.”

We all use technology to make decisions on a micro-level, such as checking your phone to find the time of your next meeting, or when you should leave the office to meet friends for lunch. In the future, we’ll be using technology to answer much more difficult questions.

 “We’re all very familiar with the personal use of technology but I think where we’re heading is being able to use big data to answer questions that are much more difficult,” said Madden. “So where we should encourage people to build or not build, how should we look at public safety, how should we allocate resources for public safety and response. I think if we have better tools, better modeling in that area, that we’ll be able to use IT much more effectively and on a much more broad basis than we have historically.”

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