Working with water: FloodHack 16
Discovering more about the data behind flooding.
With recent heavy rainfall and flooding across the North of England and further afield, we have been prompted to investigate solutions available to understand and monitor such events. Now, with our own river level sensor installed and infrastructure in place for additional sensors, I went along to FloodHack 16 – a two-day event hosted at ODI Leeds.
In addition to attempting to solve real problems, hackathons like FloodHack 16 are great for meeting others with a common interest, as well as gaining useful insights into the processes and challenges faced along the way. Though social media and the wider internet are great tools, there is nothing quite like face-to-face conversation and being in the same room as a group of enthusiastic and capable people.
In the thick of it
ODI Leeds has a fantastic multi-use space that provided ample accomodation for collaboration during FloodHack 16. Large desks and a bright, airy room with refreshments available throughout were easy to take for granted, and thanks must go to those involved in keeping everything running smoothly.
The day kicked off with a brief introduction and a loose plan of forming working groups based on proposed different stages of flooding, namely:
Delegates soon began to cluster into groups and a sense of purpose took over the room. With people from a host of different backgrounds and professions, there was plenty of information and experiences exchanged, notes taken and ideas bounced around.
Open by default
I took part in FloodHack 16 to find out more about building a larger sensor network in the Calder Valley and surrounding areas, and to talk to people working with open data; what challenges are present, what factors need taking into consideration and what are the best solutions?
Present at FloodHack 16 were members of staff from three different local authorities: Bradford Metropolitan District Council, Calderdale Council and Leeds City Council. This was great to see! I spoke to Jake Roy from Calderdale Council's Data Works team and he mentioned the phrase 'open by default' – something included in their Digital and ICT strategy and, to me, very encouraging. The same phrase also appears in a public report from Leeds City Council and is a fundamental principle of LocalGov Digital – a network for digital practitioners in local government.
Alongside members of local councils were people from other large organisations, with Yorkshire Water, Ordanance Survey and the Environment Agency amongst those taking part. Smaller local businesses and the education sector were also involved, with Dr Nick Efford from Leeds University working on mapping rainfall data.
Building with open data
As well as wrangling with datasets, some people were working with hardware. Julian Tait of Things Manchester brought along some LoRaWAN compatible boards, including a couple of Microchip's LoRa Mote Development Nodes and a handful of RN2483 modules, the first hardware to pass the LoRa Alliance's LoRaWAN Certification Program.
Dave Mee, a colleague of Julian's was building an Arduino-based GPS LoRaWAN range tester using one of the above modules. Intended as an affordable, hack-able platform for assessing the performance of LoRaWAN gateways, this will be a great tool for those wishing to provide an area with connectivity.
Ben Ward from Flood Network brought along updated versions of their river level sensor, and along with Patrick Fenner of Deferred Procrastination soon had one publishing data to ODI Leeds' newly-adopted LoRaWAN gateway, due to soon be providing part of Leeds City Centre with connectivity.
Hardware aside, other groups were making great progress. Following a discussion about a particular data set, members of Calderdale Council published more data immediately, a great testament to the value of bringing people together at these events.
Throughout FloodHack 16 teams shared content and notes on a HackPad, providing a useful commentary and resource for later reference.
Guy Shrubsole from Friends of the Earth was working on a map of climate change impact on the UK and pushing for the release of more open data. By the end of the second day he reported interesting conversations with other delegates and discovery of lots of currently unusable and/or inaccessible data that would help independent organisations build more accurate flood risk maps.
During the two days, engaging discussion of arguments for and against the publishing of open data took place, both in smaller groups and when attendees came together to review progress.
Concerns regarding anonymity and privacy were voiced, with one example of address-related information sticking in mind. Data on which households received flood relief funding is recorded by local councils and could be made available, but would it be ethical for this data to include complete addresses and names of those in receipt of such funding? If it were averaged out to a per-street or per-postcode level it might be suitably anonymised, but would it still be as useful for those building a flood map?
Open data is certainly here to stay and it is very encouraging to see businesses and local councils both sharing and making use of open datasets. Adoption of open data policies and making data openly available is not without cost or complication, as touched upon during FloodHack 16, but it seems to me that the benefits far outweigh the costs.
During the final show and tell presentations an interesting point was raised regarding the use of neural networks to analyse and predict flood risk. In the video above, Nick describes the idea and a proof-of-concept, and the problem of a severe lack of data to make this a viable solution.
This is a great argument for the installation of more sensors, giving improved data resolution and ultimately more information for a proposed neural network to aid in prediction of flood risk and perhaps improved resilience to future disasters.
It was tremendous to take part in FloodHack 16 and see what can be achieved in an informal environment and a short amount of time. Should you wish to catch up on more of the event, John Popham recorded and compiled a playlist of videos for future reference.
Once again thanks to ODI Leeds for hosting the event.