Aftershock App: Where science meets humanitarian aid

December 8, 2014

A partnership between a world-renowned seismologist and a veteran aid worker has given birth to an innovative project to allow disaster response organizations, for the first time ever, to forecast in real-time where aftershocks will hit, saving lives and paving the way for better post-quake relief decisions.

Shortly after 6 am on January 20, 2010, Port-au-Prince rattled with terror as a 6.1 magnitude aftershock struck a disaster zone that just eight days earlier been decimated by a 7.3 magnitude quake that killed upwards of 200,000. Fifteen seconds long, the tremor’s damage was limited but it made an indelible point as thousands scurried into open spaces in fear of further crumbling of the city’s poorly constructed buildings: aftershocks carry the potential to do very real damage in the aftermath of major quakes.

Humanitarian organizations felt more obligated than ever to improve preparedness for aftershocks and limit their potential impact, so veteran aid worker Dominic Crowley, on the ground in Port-au-Prince, placed a phone call to world-renowned seismologist Professor John McCloskey.

Crowley’s team from the 45-year-old non-profit Concern Worldwide was sleeping in tents and feeling unsettling, strong aftershocks leading up to the January 20th tremor. Ed Kenney, Concern’s New York-based communications manager who was working in Port-au-Prince at the time, recalls the abject fear expressed by Haitian and expatriate colleagues alike that morning : “Both groups, but especially the Haitians who had lost friends and family members, lived for months afterwards on constant alert for the next deadly shock.  It was the same for millions of Haitians and it prolonged the impact of an already devastating event.”

Fifteen seconds long, the tremor’s damage was limited but it made an indelible point as thousands scurried into open spaces in fear of further crumbling of the city’s poorly constructed buildings.

Crowley wanted advice from McCloskey: where was the safest place for the group to bunker down, and could Concern’s emergency response in any way account for aftershocks before they happened ?

McCloskey analyzed the seismic data in Haiti and helped make recommendations to Crowley which he used in locating his team.  Spurred on by a shared desire to make post-earthquake response more effective, the partnership led to the development of a groundbreaking project to develop software tools and train emergency workers to forecast where the most damaging aftershocks are likely to strike. This information can impact the location of temporary housing and aid distribution points. Ultimately, it can save lives.

Information for Poor As Well As Rich

How to provide vulnerable countries with earthquake information is a topic McCloskey has been considering since 2005. The Indian Ocean earthquake of December 2004 resulted in a tsunami that devastated large parts of the coasts and islands of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. The wave was so strong that it killed people in coastal areas in Somalia some seven hours after the earthquake and also caused damage in Kenya and Tanzania.

After that, McCloskey recalls, “I began to feel I was implicitly contributing to a scientific worldview that was content with rich people, mainly in the Western world, getting information and poor people in the developing world being excluded from the party.”

“Both groups, but especially the Haitians who had lost friends and family members, lived for months afterwards on constant alert for the next deadly shock.  It was the same for millions of Haitians and it prolonged the impact of an already devastating event.”

But McCloskey didn’t know what to do with that disillusionment until he met Crowley and began working with Concern post-tsunami and during the Haiti emergency.  A partnership opened up between them.

Crowley credits McCloskey with being “exceptional in that his interest is in the social application of science—the question of how you use earthquake science to make an actual difference in the lives of people.”

“Having seen the immediate aftermath of devastating earthquakes, it was clear that we do not know enough about the pattern of aftershocks and the risks they pose to vulnerable communities,” Crowley said. “This project, for the first time, gives us a tool that will help us make decisions about how and where to program our response.”

Thinking Outside the Box to Create Innovation

The timing of earthquakes are currently unpredictable, “and that’s probably a statement for all time,” McCloskey says. This is partly because when all conditions deep within the earth are right, a devastating quake can be set off by stress “smaller than what you feel in a normal handshake.”

On the other hand, forecasting aftershocks is doable. “Within half an hour, we can crudely predict what is happening with aftershocks,” McCloskey says. “Within a week, we can identify the areas that will suffer 80 to 90 percent of the shaking.”

The process works like this: through data-collection, seismologists can see, post-earthquake, where a lot of slippage along a fault line has occurred and where there’s been less. They can also look at what has happened on the earth’s surface in response to the quake. Based on this information, they can produce stress maps, which help them forecast the location, strength, and frequency of aftershocks. Aftershocks generally occur in what is called a “butterfly pattern.” As hours pass and field-based aid staff with the right tools monitor and input fresh data reflecting what happens on the ground, scientists can refine their predictions even further.

Phase I of the project – to produce an aftershock forecasting tool for use by emergency response workers – began in the autumn of 2012 with funding from the Natural Environment Research Council. McCloskey and his team successfully crunched the data, and he reported on the results in May of this year.

“Within half an hour, we can crudely predict what is happening with aftershocks,” McCloskey says. “Within a week, we can identify the areas that will suffer 80 to 90 percent of the shaking.”

Phase II, currently underway, will involve rigorous statistical testing of the tool and the data it produces, as well as the establishment of an international team of experts to assess and advance the utility of the tool. “The evidence is strong, but we don’t want people to believe us before we prove it. Otherwise, you are talking to a priest, not a scientist,” McCloskey says.  The plan is to test the tool using information from past earthquakes and then, at the first opportunity, to test it in real time. McCloskey pictures a Phase III that will explore how to use the tool in cases when little data may be immediately available.

“We had two people prepared to think outside the box,” McCloskey says. “That’s how we generated innovation.”

“We are working in a number of countries in which earthquakes occur and we don’t know enough about them,” Crowley adds. “This is something that has the potential to be very, very useful.”

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