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Saving people from rising waters – 140 characters at a time

February 9, 2016
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Frank Sedlar’s voice comes over Skype from Jakarta, a city almost exactly on the other side of the globe. “The doors have been blown off on everything that I thought I knew,” he says. “In a sense, Jakarta is living in the future of how we will engineer cities and how we will handle urban flooding for the next 100 years.”

Sedlar found his fascination in computer flood modeling as an undergraduate civil engineering student at the University of Michigan. “It was all computer based. We were trying to model flooding in cities all over the world, and I remember thinking:  What are these cities really like? Computer models failed to capture the complexity of megacity in my imagination” he says.

Frank Sedlar sits on the existing sea wall at the Waduk Pluit neighborhood of Jakarta. The barrier is a modest two feet wide concrete wall that is supposed to stop seawater from pouring into urban neighborhoods. According to residents, the water already flows.

Frank Sedlar (Photo by Marcin Szczepanski)

Sedlar’s first introduction to Jakarta and its residents happened rather spontaneously when he joined a U-M Architecture and Urban Planning trip to study complex urban environments that are affected by flooding. “I went kind of on a whim. I really knew nothing about Indonesia, nothing about Jakarta, I couldn’t even point it on the map,” he says.

That’s when he met Etienne Turpin, who co-led the trip. Together they worked in poor urban river communities affected by flooding.  A year later, Turpin had taken a fellowship position at the University of Wollongong in Australia and co-founded PetaJakarta.org. Sedlar went back to Jakarta to work with Turpin in the summer of 2014.

“Here I was, a hot-shot engineer from one of the best engineering schools in the world,” Sedlar said. “I get to Jakarta and I sit in front of the computer there, and I’m thinking, ‘Let’s look at the data. Let’s run some flood modeling and let’s solve the problem of flooding in the city!” Then he realized the data didn’t exist.

With 30 million people, Jakarta is the second-largest city in the world. It has roughly 680 miles of canals and 13 big rivers that drain to the ocean. According to Sedlar, there are only 26 sensors that measure the water levels. At any given time, about half of them are either broken, stolen or offline. So there’s very little information on the water levels. And that information is critical for traditional flood modeling. It’s also critical in making decisions on when to turn on the pumps, when to turn off the pumps, when to open the floodgates, basically how to operate the infrastructure. That’s the system that is supposed to save billions of dollars in property damage and human lives every year during the monsoon season.

So what do you do in the absence of the data?

You get the data. You turn to crowdsourcing. Jakarta has been called the social media capital of the world. It has one of the highest density of users per capita. Facebook and Twitter are huge there. Selfies are through the roof. The researchers Sedlar has teamed up with figured that during a flood, people must talk about it on social media. And that’s how the idea of PetaJakarta.org was born. Sedlar and his teammates were going to use humans as data gathering sensors. Researchers teamed up with Twitter and created an online map of flooding in Jakarta that is updated in real time, street by street.

“It’s a completely new approach to studying flooding and even what flooding is. And our findings in Jakarta can have far going consequences for other mega cities,” Sedlar says. “So it’s really exciting to be at the forefront of this twenty first century flood engineering.”

Now, in 2016, Sedlar is back in Jakarta on a Fulbright Fellowship. He continues to work with PetaJakarta.org as the team’s civil engineer. He helps with making hydrological sense of these new sources of data and the implementation of the PetaJakarta.org 2.0 version of the flooding map. And he is fascinated by the creative chaos of the city.

“The project has allowed me to break from this traditional civil engineering model where you can predict water flows and everything behaves according to equations. In Jakarta, and in an increasing number of other cities in the world, there’s no rhyme or reason and flooding doesn’t follow the typography.

To Sedlar, the most meaningful aspect of his work is connection to real people on the ground. In all global megacities, “there are people who are completely disadvantaged by the flooding, by the climate change,” he says. ”These are the people who can’t afford to move out of their flooded homes even if floods occur more and more frequently.  They have no say. Through the tools we are developing, we are giving voice to the people who are typically extremely excluded and powerless.” Using social media and crowdsourcing, PetaJakarta.org helps people help themselves and their city – 140 characters at a time.

This story was originally posted to Rising #Waters, a blog by a Michigan Engineering communications team spending two weeks in Indonesia documenting Sedlar’s work.

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