Israeli programming team to save rural areas from floods

Engineers, programmers to solve global water crises by creating mechanism to gather real-time Twitter and Facebook updates during storms.

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October 27, 2011 03:52
4 minute read.
Thai army helicopter drops food to stranded people

Thailand floods 521. (photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer Thailand)

By creating a mechanism that will gather real-time Twitter and Facebook updates during storms in flood-prone regions of the world, a four-member team of Israeli computer programmers and environmental experts hopes to better prevent natural disasters.

While flooding may not be Israel’s biggest issue, when looking at casualty numbers worldwide, “floods are the main issue that affect humanity,” one of the team members, Ran Bushuhrian, an environmental business developer, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.

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Bushuhrian and his colleagues participated in a three-day event earlier this week in Tel Aviv called the WaterHackathon, which occurred in conjunction with nine other nearly simultaneous gatherings in Bangalore, Kampala, Lagos, Lima, London, Nairobi, Toronto and Washington, DC.

Sponsored by the World Bank, the WaterHackathon is a marathon of sorts that brings together software developers, designers and water experts in attempt to “solve – ‘hack’ – real-world water problems,” according to the program’s international website. Some such challenges include providing access to safe and reliable drinking water, flooding and drought solutions, irrigation and watershed management and environmental pollution, the campaign says.

The World Bank considers these issues extremely urgent, as 2.5 billion people across the globe live without any sanitation and 887 million without access to safe water, Water- Hackathon data explained.

Israel’s branch of the event was held at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Engineering Software Building, under the guidance of the StarTAU program, the university’s entrepreneurship center. Around 30-40 men and women, from students to professional – engineers, software programmers and water experts – gathered together for the caucus, according to StarTAU spokesman Yuri Gankin.

“Altogether they formulate a group and each can contribute his own part,” Gankin told the Post on Monday.

The group members even had the option of bringing sleeping bags to this marathon work event, though in the end, none of them chose to, Gankin noted.

Aside from strategizing together in teams, the group members also were able to listen to lectures from leading hi-tech entrepreneur Dr. Yossi Vardi and from Dr. Alex Coman, a technology and business management expert, who regularly appears as a commentator on shows like Laila Kalkali (Economic Night).

The winning team out of five groups total, which turned out to be Bushuhrian and his colleagues, will receive three-months worth of access to resources and mentoring from IBM to actualize their solutions, while the second and third place teams will receive two and one month respectively. The groups were judged by an expert panel, including Coman, dean of TAU’s Exact Science faculty Prof. Yaron Oz, former chairman of Mekorot water utility Buki Oren, senior manager at IBM Pnina Vortman, Israel NewTech director Oded Distal, World Bank representative Alexander McPhail, and Blue | Water Technologies vice president of research and development Dr. Stela Diamant.

“So far what we have in hand [for flood watch] are hydrological models that can predict according to rain forecasts, and these cannot give us real-time information,” Bushuhrian told the Post. “What we have today that is not being used is all the available information – the people on the ground that can SMS, tweet, use Facebook and announce each thing.”

During the WaterHackathon, Bushuhrian and his team members live tracked people tweeting about a flood in Bangkok, to understand how the information they were delivering on a real-time basis might be useful to decision makers on the ground, he explained. Even in the most rural areas of India, similarly, coverage of mobile phones is over 75 percent and could be a critical tool in disaster prevention, according to Bushuhrian.

Bushuhrian worked with computer programmer Eden Cohen, platform application engineer Igal Muchnik and geographic information systems expert Ran Bitton on their proposal.

“One purpose of the project is to build an algorithm that can sniff social networks and can aggregate information and percolate it in order to have valuable data that decision makers can use,” he said.

If one village located upstream on a river, for example, tweets about rain that has only just started to fall, leaders might be able to use the information coming from that area to prevent disaster from occurring 100-200 km. away downstream, Bushuhrian explained. Meanwhile, if colored water measurement indicators were painted on the sides of village buildings, residents could SMS the height of the rising water levels to a free phone number.

Over the next three months, Bushuhrian hopes that the group’s project will become a reality, and help prevent flooding disasters in areas where access to broader technology and infrastructure is minimal.

“We have limited resources and we have to utilize them in the best way,” he said.


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