Researchers use app to help predict landslides

Edinburgh researchers are using digital technology to help predict landslides in Latin America.


Researchers use app to help predict landslides

The team has been training the community of an informal settlement in Medellin City, Colombia to monitor how the main hillside in the area is shifting over time.

The residents, who live in an area at high risk of landslides, send photos via WhatsApp to the researchers to allow them to monitor the situation.

Risk of landslides

The research team from Heriot-Watt University, the University of Edinburgh and the National University of Colombia, use the images to advise residents on how to reduce the risk through draining and can warn them if a landslide is imminent.

The multi-skilled team includes planners, engineers, geologists and architects.

They have been teaching the local residents how to monitor water ingress, engineer emergency draining solutions and identify early warning signs of a landslide.  

Such an event  could devastate their community and similar neighbourhoods along the hillside.

Working with communities

Colombia is a country with a serious landslide problem. Casualty numbers are high and growing. There are approximately 44,000 households living in informal settlements in the Medellin Metropolitan Area which are at risk, many of which have no proper foundations. Working with our Colombian colleagues, we identified an area that was at risk and have formed an on-going partnership with the local community. We installed a monitoring system and trained a community group to collect data and photographs which they send us regularly on WhatsApp.

Dr Harry SmithDirector of the Centre for Environment & Human Settlements at Heriot-Watt University

The residents have been trained to use a combination of civil and geotechnical engineering methods so they know what they are looking for and where they should be monitoring.

They take regular photographs at set points from carefully mapped angles during and after periods of rain.

Dr Soledad Garcia Ferrari, Senior Lecturer in Architectural Design from the University of Edinburgh, says their aim is to manage rainwater, a major triggering factor for landslides, with affordable mitigation strategies.

Three levels of water management networks were identified to implement mitigation measures which reflected on different levels of responsibility from households to local authority. Our aim is for the community to learn and share learning of the causes of landslides through monitoring the territory and for communities to continue to take ownership when implementing measures directed at mitigating landslide risk.

Dr Soledad Garcia FerrariSenior Lecturer in Architectural Design

Using WhatsApp is important as it records the time and date automatically and is a platform which is globally accessible. "These photographs allow us to see relative movements and early signs of differential movements as well as highlighting where water enters and exits the slopes, the volumes of run-off and the impact of paved and unpaved areas. Just a few hundred metres from where we've been working, there were more than 500 deaths due to a tragic landslide back in 1987, and in April this year, 17 people lost their lives in a landslide in the nearby city of Manizales.

Dr Gabriela MederoAssociate Professor in Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering at Heriot-Watt University

The researchers found that many people in the area, which is perched at the top of a high slope, feared eviction by the city council if they spoke up about the risks.

The team has been facilitating meetings between the local council and the community to enable them to work together to create longer-term drainage works.

Community involvement

The researchers say this model of monitoring, engineering and community involvement has the potential to work globally.

The initial project is being funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund through the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), with additional funding now secured through the Global Challenges Research Fund (the British Academy’s Cities & Infrastructure Programme) to roll out the model to two more communities in Medellin City in 2018.

The new project will also expand the coverage applying the developed model to a favela in São Paulo, Brazil, alongside academics from the University of São Paulo.

School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture

Medellin Urban Innovation - Edinburgh College of Art

Centre for Environment and Human Settlement - Heriot - Watt University