Thursday, 25 August 2016

On earthquake prediction, we’re asking the wrong question!

The recent devastating earthquake in Central Italy. The terrible scenes from Ecuador earlier this year. Nepal last year. And all throughout history.  When earthquakes strike, buildings collapse, and tragically people die, lose their homes, jobs, livelihoods. Their streets will never be the same again.

Inevitably, after larger and newsworthy earthquakes, articles fly around asking, ‘Can we predict earthquakes?’. The most recent I have seen is from which ‘…answers your biggest questions about earthquakes’. The top three are:

1. Can scientists predict earthquakes?
2. But still, given all those computer models and such, why can’t they predict?
3. Are you sure scientists can’t predict earthquakes?

Clearly, questions on earthquake prediction is on our minds...

Furthermore, below is a plot of popularity of google searches for the term ‘predict earthquake’. I’ve highlighted major earthquakes with fatalities immediately prior the major peaks that may have triggered people to google these search terms.

There are obviously other major earthquake where there aren’t peaks in searches, but from this diagram it seems to suggest that peaks in searches do follow deadly earthquakes.

Interestingly, the first peak follows the first major earthquake sequence in Italy following the L’Aquila 2009 event and its surrounding controversial prediction stories. This may be why there was such a large peak in searches. 

Additionally, popular articles following an earthquake may drive these searches significantly – such as the aforementioned from

Now I understand why this question is important. If we knew when earthquakes were going to happen, we can get out of buildings and avoid injury and fatalities. We might lose our houses, schools, offices, but we escape with our lives and health. But I think there is a much more important line of questioning that is needed:

1. If we could predict earthquakes, what would we do?
2. If we had two months notice of an upcoming earthquake, what would we do?
3. If we had 2, 5, 10, 50 years notice, what would we do?

In the short term, I think we may prepare emergency plans, make arrangements in case our house collapsed, buy insurance if available, etc.

In the longer term, we might assess the vulnerability of buildings, reinforce those that are less safe, make sure that new buildings are built well, etc.

Now, if you live in an area where earthquakes have happened in the past, it is pretty likely that they will happen again. So actually you have your longer term warning. You have your ‘prediction’!

So, let’s get started on preparing properly. Let’s start sorting out our buildings, our construction practices, our emergency plans. Let’s reduce the risk to inevitable future earthquakes, and the devastation and suffering that they bring.

Let’s start answering the right questions!

Monday, 8 February 2016

Some initial thoughts from an earthquake engineer on the collapse of the apartment building in Tainan

There has been a lot of coverage of the total collapse of an apartment building observed in Tainan after the earthquake a few days ago. This blog takes a very initial look, using only the information available through news outlets, to try and start to understand what happened to cause this catastrophic collapse.

The structure concerned is the 17 storey Wei Guan Jun Ling apartment complex. Having had a look on Google street view I have found what I think is the building that has collapsed. These are views from the front and back:

View from front of collapsed building (from Google street view)

View from rear of collapsed building (from Google Street view)

It is obvious that the building has overturned in the direction shown in the diagram below. The apartments on the top 14 or so storeys of the building remain (relatively) intact with most of their damage likely to have been caused by the impact of it falling to the ground.

Collapse mechanism of structure
When we come to look at the bottom two storeys of the building, this is where this building's major weakness is clear. The diagram below highlights a possible soft storey (see red box). This is likely to have caused the overturning of the entire structure by either:

1. the collapse of the soft storey, particularly at the front (i.e. the white circled columns); or
2. the difference in stiffness between the apartments above and the soft storey below causing failure at the junction between the two (i.e. at second floor level).
Looking further through photos available online I found this photo (below). The photo appears to show (as far as I can tell) the ceiling that you would have seen if you had been standing on the first floor (on it's side). The walls and columns have ripped off the structure below, leaving steel reinforcement dangling. This gives some weight to the theory of the overturning of the building being initiated by a soft storey failure (see point 2 above). Additionally it is worth noting that the white circled columns above are orientated to offer less support if the building was trying to overturn towards the main road (as it did in the end), which gives weight to point 1 (see above).

It is clear that something significant was wrong with this structure. It lies on its side, whilst buildings next door have even managed to keep their windows intact (windows are often the first thing to break in earthquakes). Much of the discussion has focussed on poor construction of the building. The photo below appears to show tin cans in the bottom of a floor slab (although again I can't be sure). Filling concrete with 'junk' obviously reduce the concrete costs on a building site and is obviously a sign of poor construction, possible poor design, and poor building control (i.e. poor checks by government enforcers or designers as to whether the building is being constructed as it was designed). Depending on the extent of this 'junk-filled' concrete, this might also be a contributing factor.

It just goes to show that reinforced concrete structures are very complex buildings to design, and construct, and once built they can be very hard to assess for their vulnerability (as all of the weaknesses are hidden inside the concrete).

But the bottom line is, again, that poor construction and lack of enforcement of building regulations continue, unnecessarily, to kill people in earthquakes.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Community-based DRR: are we setting the bar too high?

I wrote a post for the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) blog site ahead of the Sendai conference, you can read it here - and I have reposted it below. 

I have had the fortune of being able to study an incredible example of community-based disaster risk reduction (DRR), on the slopes of a very dangerous volcano in Ecuador. Volcán Tungurahua, or ‘Throat of Fire’ in English, is a serious threat to the lives and livelihoods of over 30,000 who live close by, and many more further away. Fifteen years ago a network of volunteers was established following a volcanic crisis. They are called the vigías in Spanish or ‘watchmen/lookout’ in English and they fulfill many roles, including citizen-scientists, an early warning network, risk communicators, DRR advocates, DRR managers, and risk assessors. Over the years the network has helped to save lives and build a resilient community, adapting to changing activity at the volcano, and has made necessary adjustments in response to changes in national risk management strategies.

We wanted to know how or why has this network lasted? What has sustained it?  How has it led to risk reduction? We were able to see that the network is successful because it:

·      Was started by communities, civil defense and scientists collaboratively
·      Has motivated volunteers
·      Actually reduces risk
·      Is sustained by strong trust-based relationships between volunteers, communities and scientists responsible for monitoring the volcano
·      Has facilitated community DRR activities, such as vulnerability and hazard assessment, and planning.
·      Has fostered resilient communities

Several years ago, when starting to research participatory DRR, I was struck by the scarcity of successful examples in the academic literature. This gaping hole stood out against the backdrop of international DRR strategies calling for increased participation, advocating changes from ‘top-down’ to ‘bottom-up’, and extolling the virtues of community-based assessment, monitoring and management of disaster risk.

I began to ask myself why are there limited examples? Is it because, although great in theory, community-based/participatory approaches simply don’t work in the real world? Is it because no one is taking an interest or because no one is writing about them?

I started to think that actually it might have been because of the ways in which we evaluate their effectiveness, and therefore describe them, are not quite fit for purpose. If you dive into the academic literature on participation in DRR or international development (DRR’s bigger sibling), many scholars suggest that community-based approaches should be evaluated on how they:

·      empower the powerless
·      change policy
·      prompt sustainable solutions that meet the communities’ needs.

These principles are ideals, and we should all strive for them. But should we use them to evaluate initiatives? Should we expect all participatory initiatives be empowering for everyone in a community? Will they all rebalance power from scientists or risk managers or the authorities? Should they all change policy? Can they all be sustainable? Do they need to do all of these things to reduce disaster risk? It does make me wonder, are we in danger of not recognising success because we set the bar too high?

I wonder if we are too critical of community-based initiatives? Researchers question the extent that they empower or change policy - suggesting that outsiders often drive them in an extractive way - rather than asking if they reduce risk. Scientists question the value of information or knowledge produced by things like citizen science and community-based monitoring or participatory disaster risk assessment. Authorities question the effectiveness or potential loss of objectivity of community-based disaster risk management.

Are we missing the point? In the real world, no participatory initiative is going to be perfect, but in a pragmatic sense shouldn’t we be asking:
·      Are they reducing risk?
o   How is that happening?
o   How can it be improved?
o   Are they developing adaptive capacity?

Looking at some of the published rationales for participation, a DRR focus on how it leads to better outcomes or enhances learning, is perhaps how we might better notice success.

If we reframe the problem in this way, perhaps we change our language from phrases like ‘top down/bottom up’ to describing participation as involvement in the process. Primarily considering risk reduction allows us to still understand empowerment and policy change, but might make it easier for us to recognise success.

I think that many more initiatives, like the vigías network, need to be described, so that we can learn from their successes and their failures.

Being critical is good in some cases, but DRR is difficult, and we need to find and describe any examples of where it is being done so that we can get better at it. This is particularly important for participatory DRR – so let’s not set the bar too high and miss out on recognising success.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Real impact - who are the #unsungheros ?

I’m blessed to work with some incredible people but what is becoming increasingly apparent to me, is that those who are potentially having the biggest impact on society, especially in the context of reducing risk from volcanoes, are those that very often are not in the limelight. They often don’t publish articles in Nature, they don’t receive awards or plaudits or recognition. In fact – I might go as far as suggesting that in the current ways that the research councils or funding bodies value and encourage impact – they are almost irrelevant.

This troubles me deeply. Modern volcanology is about a systematic process aimed at reducing the adverse affects of volcanoes by understanding the causes of disasters and promoting strategies that limit exposure, reduce vulnerability, enhance early-warning and improve preparedness for future events. Don’t get me wrong – this requires excellent science – it really does, but what is ‘excellent science’?

I would wager that on many research proposals about volcanoes, that people say “the results from this study…could further scientific understanding and…help reduce risk”. This is a great aim – but are we as a community valuing and encouraging and promoting and supporting those people who are actually doing this? Not writing about it in a proposal or talking about it on TV – but those actually doing it?

Here’s who I think we undervalue:

  • ·      People who do painstaking work on databases
  • ·      Scientists and technicians working in volcano observatories who work tirelessly to just ensure that data is even collected, let alone write fancy research about it
  • ·      Scientists who devote time and effort to listening to the needs of research partners and being respectful of them
  • ·      Researchers who do modeling work for others for free or without meaningful acknowledgment
  • ·      Those that work tirelessly to bring people together and develop and strengthen collaboration
  • ·      Those senior people/professors who spend all of their time trying to find work for others or trying to make things happen – who perhaps don’t have a lot of time for themselves or their own research
  • ·      Nice – unselfish people – who just want to help out

My fundamental problem with ‘impact’ is that the way that it is conceptualised is inherently selfish. That’s fine if the motivation for doing good work is just for the thrill of discovery, furthering ‘science’ or for personal gain – but most people working in volcanology or disaster risk reduction have base motivations that they want to help avoid disasters and improve people’s lives.

Surely we can’t go on in this way? Are we in danger that the impact agenda forces good and humble people to be self-serving?  Whereas, the reality is that true ‘impact’ is often made by those who are happy to just be ‘making cups of tea’ for the rest of the team.

Here’s my challenge to anyone that reads this (all 10 of you) – find a way to support, encourage and promote those who are doing the unselfish things. Because – those people often barely survive month to month, rarely get plaudits or awards, don’t get huge research grants, are often unable to attend conferences, and often don’t have time to blog or tweet.

I’m sure that I am not alone in thinking this – We all have too many conversations or hear too many stories about people being overlooked, undervalued and un-supported. What can we do about it?

I think that these people don’t need you to shout about them or cover them in decorations. They just need encouragement and support and to know their worth. Find those  #unsungheros and that’s where you will find real and meaningful impact.

Additional comment - people can be successful without being self-serving. But this post is about recognising those that aren't normally recognised :) 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Where are all of the engineers?

I'm biased, but I think engineers are pretty awesome. Turn on a tap and water just appears! Turn on a switch and a room is brought to light by a glowing pice of metal! Descend underground on magical moving escalators and take a train across a city! Fly around the world in something that weights 650 tonnes - not being an aeronautical engineer even I think A380s look and feel like some sort of wizardry!

WOW - engineering is essential to so much in human life. It solves every day problems with pragmatic solutions that are useable, useful and used.

People may consider engineers to:

Here's another definition:

So, now we have my 'unbiased' opinion cleared up (!), here's my question:

Why are there so few engineers involved in solving the problems of disaster risk and development?

The above skills strike me as a very similar set of skills that are needed in the field of Disaster Risk Reduction or DRR. To reduce disasters we need problem solvers, who can keep to a budget, who can think about future issues, who collaborate daily, who achieve results. Engineers have the attributes and inherent characteristics of the people who are needed.

So where are we?

Designing mega structures to be proud of?
Struggling for a 3% profit margin (much less than is deserved!) on city projects?
Delivering Olympic Parks?

All of these things are needed and are brilliant. But there must be more of us that care about humanitarian issues; that feel responsibility when we watch pictures on our screens of Haiti flattened by poorly designed concrete that we know, if we had designed, would have stood up and not wiped out that family. There is so much good work engineering work going on in developing countries, but there needs to be much more.

I recently attended the Pai Lin Li lecture at the Institute of Structural Engineers in London about transition shelters used by two NGOs in Ecuador and Haiti. But although these organisations are trying to provide shelter to vulnerable families, actually, they could be making them more vulnerable by providing shelter that is not engineered. And you know, engineering doesn't always make things more expensive. Actually, very often the opposite. We know how to design buildings. We know where to save on materials and where to reinforce. As a practising engineers, delivering money saving solutions is our job description!

Today I found out that Architects for Humanity are closing. Known for their great strap line 'Design Like You Give a Damn', and enigmatic founder Cameron Sinclair (here is his 2006 TED talk) this is one of the organisations that inspired me to do what I am now. So it's a sad day for them, me and for this type of work. Lack of funding is quoted to be the main issue: 

"It is that humanitarian design isn't considered a fundamental right. And that today, in San Francisco, it is easier to find funding for an app than to fund an organization which transforms lives."

So, here's my challenge. Let's stand up, be engineers and deliver engineering solutions to the developed and developing worlds. Let's 'obnoxiously insist' that things are 'done the right way'.

Here are some links to some organisations that might inspire you to get involved:

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Into the volcano: why glamourise the danger?

Into the volcano: why glamourise the danger?
Volcanologists wearing hard hats at Yassur several years ago. Take note BBC. (Photo @volcanna) 

Volcanoes are exciting things to see. Amazing cultures exist on their slopes. They threaten ways of life around them.

Hence, they make great TV – but I was disappointed with the first episode of BBC’s Into the Volcano.

Here’s why:

1) They weren’t wearing hard hats!!

Most volcanologists wear hard hats, even on volcanoes that haven’t been recently active. It’s now common practice, much like wearing a helmet whilst cycling or on a building site. I thought that these days all volcanologists wore them (especially when close to an exploding vent!). Even the smallest of ballistics from an explosion can kill someone. I have spoken at length to some of those who helped rescue survivors following the Galeras 1993 eruption – want an opinion on hard hats…ask them!

2) I question the risk/reward of collecting the lava bomb ‘fresh sample’

Did you know that there are actually quite a few volcanologists from Vanuatu, including many disaster management professionals, many of whom I often see at international conferences. I contacted them to ask why they didn’t appear in the programme. This was part of their reply:

“what was programmed to be shown by scientists for this show is not real and is against what we have been preaching to communities here, we educate the communities to take care of themselves not to throw themselves into the volcano!!!! Therefore we [Ni-Vanuatu scientists] ended up withdrawing ourselves from this filming campaign because what is being shown is not real, we do not go into the crater to collect data!!!!”

Maybe someone can give me a wholly convincing reason of why collecting a barely warm ‘fresh' sample was worth it, compared to the other bombs that they might have collected that were much nearer?

3) Volcanoes are dangerous enough – we don’t need to glamourise the risk

Volcanoes are really dangerous. They kill people. They force communities to change their ways of life to avoid potential harm. They also kill volcanologists and tourists who visit them. I’m very unimpressed with the producers for glamourising the danger, showing scientists collecting rocks without even the most modest health and safety equipment. I’m also sad that the scientists made this choice.

Most volcanologists work to reduce volcanic risk by increasing our knowledge of them through science and learning how to work with people living near them. Much of what was in this programme was laddish behaviour that I would expect to see (and admittedly sometimes enjoy) from the chaps at Top Gear.

BBC Into the volcano went to a location with the intention of doing something that is immensely dangerous, where the local volcanologists didn’t want to be involved, for limited scientific reward; this hasn’t done much to enhance the image of volcanology as a science that primarily aims to reduce risk.