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Apping Disasters: enabling citizen scientists to help collect disaster data

Citizen scientist grant

Read “Virginia Tech researcher seeks to create ‘citizen scientists’ to help in response to environmental disasters” at the College of Engineering website.

A smartphone shows an image of what a city looked like before a flood.

The 2010 Nashville flood was one of the triggers that prompted White and his team to develop an app for tapping citizen scientists.

By using civilians and their cell phones, White envisions developing an interface with visual layers that will allow scientist and users to have a better understanding of the before and after situations posed by natural disasters.

Instead of just taking pictures to show their friends during emergency situations, civilians with smartphones could be collecting necessary data for scientists and emergency responders. “The best pictures of the Nashville flooding were what people were taking on their phones,” says Jules White, an assistant professor who joined ECE last fall as a specialist in cyber-physical systems. White and his students are working on an app for smartphones that will enable “civilian scientists” to use their phones to help during emergencies.

The National Science Foundation awarded White a $66,000 grant for this project, which was prompted by recent disasters — including the Gulf Coast oil spill and the Nashville flooding. In both situations, civilians already on site could have provided important information if they had a way to transmit it to a central location. Rising floodwaters can be determined from pictures, and dangerous areas can be marked using a phone’s internal GPS. The phones have the tools, and White’s team is working on the interface.

According to White, “emergency workers or scientists can deploy this system on people’s phones. It will reconfigure the sensors on the phones to gather whatever information they need.” People would have to download the app, but after that, their phones would tell these volunteers what to do.

“Ideally,” White continues, “we could collect thousands of photographs.” However, they also need to weigh the value of the photos against the need to use the cell network for emergency response or other applications. Because of the limited bandwidth available during emergencies, one consideration for the team is the possibility of capturing and storing information that can be sent to scientists later using ad hoc techniques. “We have to manage the available resources,” says White.

Specific challenges the group faces include determining how many phones are needed for a given scenario, how to optimize power, and how to securely exchange information.

Power-aware computing is a large part of the project, according to White. “People may not be able to charge their phones during an emergency situation,” he explains. “So we’re optimizing sensors and communication to maximize battery life.”

Securely transferring information is another concern. One method the team is considering for transferring data from one phone to another at the same location simply requires both people to move their phones in a particular way.

The team is also working with civil engineering professor Mani Golparvar-Fard on high-precision augmented reality: how to overlay the position of dangerous areas on new photos using previous photos of the same place from a different angle. This is currently done with GPS and compass readings, but is imprecise, according to White. “You can tell buildings, but not doorways,” he explains.

The team is combining image-matching with GPS and compass data. “Image-matching is an offline process which takes a couple hours right now, but we want to get it done faster. This is a future direction for us,” explains White. “The context is all phases of construction. We want to overlay what the structure is supposed to look like and what it does look like, and use that to predict structural damage. I think it’s going to be a really interesting project.”

White’s team consists of six undergraduate researchers, three graduate researchers, Hamilton Turner, Paul Miranda, and Daniel Guymon, and some students at Vanderbilt University and the University of Alabama. The undergraduates are Adam Antonioli, Stephen Byle, Matt McGarvey, Joe Payne, Zach Rattner, Semere Sium, Abdulah Asiri and Avanash Sridhar. White expects two or three graduate researchers to join the team this summer.

White enjoys working with the students at both undergraduate and graduate levels.

“The most fun part of this work is seeing a lot of really smart students come up with creative ideas,” he says.

Power saving with SPOT

Jules White and Hamilton Turner work together using laptop computers

Jules White (left) with Hamilton Turner, have been exploring low-power considerations for using cell phones during disasters.

Power conservation, a critical issue for smart phone apps, becomes even more critical during an emergency. Power conservation for smartphones is made more difficult by the layers of middleware that come between the software and hardware — layers that are extremely difficult to simulate.

Graduate student Hamilton Turner has been working with White and a team at Vanderbilt on a method to emulate smartphone power consumption. The work received a best student paper and presentation award at the 1st International Conference on Pervasive and Embedded Computing and Communication Systems.

The paper, “Analyzing Mobile Application Software Power Consumption Via Model-Driven Engineering,” discusses the System Power Optimization Tool (SPOT) — a tool to automate these emulations. SPOT’s estimations come within 3-4 percent of actual smartphone power consumption.

Turner worked with White as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University on a project that used smartphones to detect traffic accidents. He also started a team there to develop smartphone apps.