Science lab spotlight

Preparing for disaster

The Urban Risk Lab works to incorporate disaster preparedness into local infrastructure

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The Urban Risk Lab developed PREPHub, a disaster preparedness system that can be integrated into community centers and local infrastructure to limit the impacts of natural disasters and provide an everyday resource to the community.
Courtesy of the Urban Risk Lab

Despite current advances in technology and increases in quality of life in the modern era, natural disasters are one of the few forces that still have the power to wipe out homes and uproot entire communities. As recent hurricanes have shown, many regions of the United States are not always as prepared as they would like to be in the event of a natural disaster. This lack of preparedness is only magnified in regions with less infrastructure and lacking in modern technology.

The Urban Risk Lab, led by Associate Professor of Architecture and Urbanism Miho Mazereeuw, aims to develop and provide integrated solutions for disaster preparedness, focusing on natural disasters and environmental impact research. Their work spans technology development, artificial intelligence, and policy proposals, all with the goal of leveraging partnerships and local resources to develop action-based research solutions that integrate disaster preparedness systems into a region’s infrastructure. From computer scientists to stenographers to artists, researchers in the lab exemplify this interdisciplinary effort by stemming from a wide range of academic, non-profit, and industry backgrounds.

One project that the MIT community might be familiar with is the PREPHub, a project which aimed to integrate disaster resilience solutions into local infrastructure by developing multi-use public fixtures that offered charging stations, supply storage, and communication systems. One of these hubs sat in front of Building 9 on Massachusetts Ave two years ago, providing a charging station, a DC electricity generator, photo booth, interactive map and emergency lighting, all in the form of a public seating area. Those interested in learning more about the white plastic structure only had to point their phones at the QR code displayed on one side of the bench to learn more about the short-term emergency response measures integrated into the hub.

While prototype displays of these disaster preparedness solutions make large strides in informing the public, Mazereeuw’s group went the extra mile to deliver fully-developed disaster preparedness systems to international communities. After the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, the Urban Risk Lab began collaborating with communities affected by the disaster to help with the recovery and to prepare for future events. PREPHub Nepal incorporated their disaster preparedness into Paatis, open-air pavilions found on most street corners that offer community activities. This PREPHub contains a water purification system, water storage, public lighting, emergency equipment and supplies. By integrating PREPHub Nepal into community spaces managed by local leaders, the lab provided an everyday resource that also saves lives in the event of a disaster.

More recently, the Urban Risk Lab has applied their skills to rebuilding Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approached the lab for advice on a holistic and comprehensive approach to post-disaster housing. Larisa Ovalles, a research associate in the lab, is currently working with Enterprise Community Partners and the University of Puerto Rico to develop housing manuals that outline safe construction practices to better inform residents on ways to build disaster-resistant homes. “Puerto Rico has a lot of informal housing [homes built without permits and not to building code standards] that could be built to be much safer standards without too much extra expense,” said Ovalles.

Even from Cambridge, the Urban Risk Lab is working to connect emergency operation centers to regions that need disaster support. Graduate student Abraham Quintero and research scientist Aditya Barve use machine learning to help emergency operations centers make decisions using real-time disaster reporting from affected communities via Twitter and Facebook. “Developing nations do not have as much data and flood models like the United States does,” said Quintero. This data scarcity makes it difficult to address natural disasters. However, in the era of social media, there are millions of Twitter users in Jakarta who report on natural disasters in their areas in real time. By developing a chatbot to reach out to those people during emergencies, emergency personnel in Jakarta get real-time updates on the state of a flood and the communities that need support. Quintero is currently looking to use machine learning to triage and interpret these updates for emergency centers, as to not overwhelm them with the new influx of information.

Mazereeuw and her team do everything from travelling to the site of a project to meet with community leaders to making their work available to the public on their website and incorporating disaster preparedness into the local infrastructure of the communities they visit. The Urban Risk Lab has worked to shift the national and global status quo from handling a disaster once it has occurred to investing in preventive solutions that mitigate the severity of natural disasters. In doing so, they rely on the different backgrounds and cultures that each collaborator and member of the lab brings to the table to create solutions that leverage new technological breakthroughs towards the specific community needs outlined by the people who live there.