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Planetary perspectives: how data can transform disaster response and preparation

From forest fires to floods, commercial satellite data can help governments prepare and respond.

According to the most recent climate projections, many parts of the UK could see wetter winters and drier summers in the coming decades. New data tools are helping governments to prepare.

“Governments around the world use our imagery and analytics to support a variety of disaster preparedness initiatives, ranging from urban planning to natural hazard risk modelling,” says Michelle Sisson, senior marketing manager at Planet, a leading Earth observation company.

The organisation operates around 200 shoebox-sized satellites that scan and image the Earth’s landmass every day. “Understanding hazard exposure and vulnerabilities in detail helps governments develop more targeted policies to help reduce risk,” says Sisson. For example, agencies can use the data to spot rapid changes over large areas, such as when soil moisture is above or below normal levels, pointing to a higher flood or fire risk.

Planet provides data products and analytics tools that help organisations to adapt to dynamic changes. These fall into three general categories: sensor data, analysis-ready data and derived data, Sisson explains. “Sensor data comes from our fleet of medium- and high-resolution satellites. Organisations can then use our imagery to monitor changes over large areas and see specific areas of interest in higher detail.

“Analysis-ready data combines our data with public satellites like Sentinel-2. It’s intended as an input for more advanced analysis, with pre-processing work already completed.” This means analysis-ready data can be used with AI and machine-learning to help predict outcomes with greater accuracy.

Derived data products or “planetary variables” indicate changes to key phenomena on the surface of the Earth such as forest structure, soil water content, land surface temperature and new roads or buildings. These products are also designed as inputs for advanced analysis. “Organisations can access our products directly from us or through partners that build highly customised solutions on top of our data,” Sisson says. These tools together help organisations to understand trends and adapt to a changing world.

Governments can access Planet data directly through Planet or through a system of trusted partners. “Everyone has different motivations and goals, so we invest a great deal of time understanding the needs of each organisation. We also have an amazing professional services team that manages the integration to ensure they’re set up for success,” Sisson says.

Satellite data is vital for citizens at risk from extreme weather events. Governments can use the data to inform early warning systems and ensure that vulnerable people are included in the planning responses. “Our data can help governments make more informed, data-driven planning decisions that keep more people and resources out of harm’s way,” she says.

In the UK, Ordnance Survey and CGI are exploring opportunities to use Planet data to detect sewage from space in order to manage flood risks, reduce the impact of pollutants on public health and the environment, and meet legally binding targets to restore water bodies.

The response to extreme weather events can also bring in satellite data to make better real-time decisions. In California, the public utility company San Diego Gas & Electric has a Fire Potential Index (FPI) developed using Planet data. The index helps the company to make operational decisions such as whether to temporarily turn off power in some areas because of the risk of sparks from the power lines starting fires, and to do this in a transparent way. It also helps to keep the public informed of heightened risk.

“We often capture the first cloud-free view during or after an event, which helps authorities begin to understand the scope of damage and allocate resources,” Sisson says. After the recent devastating wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, Microsoft’s AI for Good Lab used Planet data to rapidly train an AI model to estimate the number and severity of damaged buildings. It reduced the time to prepare the initial damage assessment from days to hours. The Red Cross then used this information to identify and respond to high-priority needs.

Even once a disastrous wildfire or flood is over, the impact can make it more vulnerable to future risks. Areas impacted by wildfires are often more vulnerable to flooding and landslides for several years before vegetation regrows.

By comparison, the Philippines faces several different challenges, primarily regular typhoons, but also earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, as well as floods and droughts. The Department of Science and Technology used Planet data to better track typhoons and their impact, which in turn enabled them to better prepare and respond to these events, helping to inform policy, quickly assess damage, and allocate resources. “We’d like governments to use our data as part of an ongoing process to understand and address risks across the landscape. It serves as a foundation to help drive continuous re-assessment and improvement,” Sisson says.

“Planet data helps governments understand dynamic changes on Earth. It’s one of many important tools available to help improve our understanding of risk in different climate scenarios,” she says. Better information helps to inform policy interventions like public assistance programs, conservation initiatives and infrastructure investments that can significantly reduce the devastating impacts of climate change on many communities. “You need the data and the political will to make these investments a priority,” she says.

Learn more about how Planet enhances emergency management, disaster preparedness and recovery initiatives around the globe.

[See also: Council bankruptcy tracker: authorities under increasing financial strain]

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