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This tech tells cities when floods are coming–and what they will destroy

Flood Concern can help cities model flood damage and prepare better flood responses. It’s one of the winners of Fast Company’s 2019 World Changing Ideas Awards.

This tech tells cities when floods are coming–and what they will destroy
[Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images]

Several years ago, one of the eventual founders of One Concern nearly died in a tragic flood. Today, the company specializes in using artificial intelligence to predict how natural disasters are unfolding in real time on a city-block-level basis, in order to help disaster responders save as many lives as possible.

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As Fast Company wrote in November 2018:

“In 2014, Stanford student structural engineer Ahmad Wani was visiting family in his native Kashmir when a catastrophic flood struck. The rising waters stranded him and his family for seven days without food or water, during which they watched their neighbor’s home collapse, killing everyone inside.

After this horrifying experience, Wani was struck by just how disorganized the emergency response was. “There is no science behind how people should be rescued,” he says. “Disaster response is really random.”

To fix that, One Concern debuted Flood Concern in late 2018. It creates map-based visualizations of where water surges may hit hardest, up to five days ahead of an impending storm. For cities, that includes not just time-lapse breakdowns of how the water will rise, how fast it could move, and what direction it will be flowing, but also what structures will get swamped or washed away, and how differing mitigation efforts–from levy building to dam releases–will impact each scenario. It’s the winner of Fast Company’s 2019 World Changing Ideas Awards in the AI and Data category.

[Image: One Concern]
So far, Flood Concern has been retroactively tested against events like Hurricane Harvey to show that it could have predicted what areas would be most impacted well ahead of the storm. The company, which was founded in Silicon Valley in 2015, started with one of that region’s pressing threats: earthquakes. It’s since earned contracts with cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cupertino, as well as private insurance companies.

Either way, a live field test is imminent as extreme weather events become more common. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the U.S. has experienced 241 severe weather events with damages exceeding $1 billion. In 2019, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report ranked extreme weather like floods and storms its number one most pressing concern.

One Concern’s first offering, dubbed Seismic Concern, takes existing information from satellite images and building permits to figure out what kind of ground structures are built on, and what might happen if they started shaking. If a big one hits, the program can extrapolate from the epicenter to suggest the likeliest places for destruction, and then adjust as more data from things like 911 calls and social media gets factored in.


Read more: World Changing Ideas 2019: 17 winning solutions that could save the planet

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Flood Concern works similarly, but with a more dynamic set of variables. It includes soil saturation and building stability estimates but also how topography will affect potential runoff. Then it adds in factors like National Weather Service forecasts and U.S. Geological Survey data about nearby river or tidal flows to create a model that adjusts as the situation changes. “We look at how things change over space and time,” says One Concern cofounder and CTO Nicole Hu.

That allows emergency crews to figure out ahead of time what roads may still passable, and plan evacuation routes accordingly. The company can also overlay maps with existing demographic data to highlight what areas of a city might be especially in danger if people there don’t evacuate. It can also pinpoint crucial infrastructure like water tanks, electric plants, and hospitals that will need protecting–and run if/then hypotheticals about how to do that.

So far, the state of Arizona has signed on as a public partner. One Concern remains in discussion with other cities and is working with international development groups for how to affordably apply its services in developing countries. It’s also building another simulator, this time for wildfires. “For too long, we have only focused on how we can use technology to make things more convenient,” Hu says. “We want to bring innovative tech into the space to help [people] make better decisions, to help make those life-saving decisions.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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