Solving the problem with emergency alerts for Portuguese civilians.

2017 was a horrible year for Portugal. We lost so much in the wildfires that spread across the country in June and October. More that half a million acres were burned, 100+ lives were lost and this could have been prevented. If only our emergency system could work...If only people had a way to be alerted and be handed useful information for them to know what to do.

  • Skills
  • React
  • Redux
  • JWT
  • Node.js
  • Styled Components
  • Sass
  • Tools
  • Sketch
  • Visual Studio Code
  • Date
  • 5 months ago
  • Client
  • WIT Software

Experiencing a wildfire

15th October 2017, Aguieira Dam:

Me and my family, we got stuck inside our car in the IP3 in Oliveira do Mondego, as a huge wildfire burned houses and everything that stood in between. Everything was chaotic, ot was an intense moment. Luckilly we managed to get out safely, thanks to one policeman that had the idea to shut the road ahead of us before anyone could risk their lives by going further. That year we already had witnessed the Pedrógão Grande wildfires that claimed more than 60 lives - most of them in their cars - so everyone knew that it could also happen to us.

My wife and my son waited in the car while I went looking for fresh water from them to drink and the smoke was very dense, the heat was intense and people were panicking. There was no cell service and there wasn't anything being transmitted on the FM radio, no warnings, nothing. As soon as the fire got closer than 500m, everyone lost their connections with the their relatives.

There we were, in the middle of a wildfire, watching everything burning around us, and there was nothing we could do.

Most importantly, there was no previous warning. We knew there were a lot of fires in Portugal on that day, but no one warned us that it could be dangerous to travel on that road. No way for us to know where to go before having entered that area. If only we could have known that we could have made a turn just a few minutes before entering the danger-zone and we could have been on a safer place.

Two lives were lost just a few meters ahead of us, we found out a couple of hours later. Some of my relatives also got trapped in the same wildfire just a few kms north of us, they lost most of their land and also some colleagues of mine faced also harsh conditions. Some of them actually were helping to put out those fires.

The idea

A couple of days later, in the aftermath, there was a lot of angst:

The Government didn't act was they were supposed, most of the forest area in the center of Portugal was turned into ashes. The anger was even greater when we found out - once gain - that the emergency system that we paid with our taxes failed to on crucial times.

So, at WIT, we knew there were only two options for us: Either we spent months or years complaining - rightly so - or we could do something and give our best effort to help society and avoid that future generations suffer the same experience we all went through.

As we've heard so many times before, information is key. Knowledge is key. And the common Portuguese civilian needs that in situations where lives are at stake. Rich or poor, your or elder, no one is different.

If we cannot rely on the poorly managed emergency service (SIRESP), then we need to put our best efforts and come up with a solution. Or, at least, a proposal.

There shouldn't be any money involved in this. This should be our contribution for our society.

People should be warned, wether they are on a cellphone, a land-line or just isolated in their remotely-located villages, listening to the church bells tolling.

The solution was actually rather simple:

  • A web-app that accessible to authorities in could use to get a bigger picture of what are the emergencies happening in Portugal in real-time and what are the critical areas where they need to warn people to act against a calamity/catastrophic event like a wildfire, floods, earthquakes, thunderstorms, etc.

  • Warnings to be sent should only be approved by top-ranked elements from the Civil Protection Authorities as to prevent false-warnings like those that happened in Hawai on that same year and others before.

  • The top-3 telecom companies operation in Portugal should be involved. They are crucial to ensure that the system works regardlessly on all networks and also to inform Woodpecker servers of how many possible targeted warning devices are in a specific area. (A subscription-based system could work as a backup)

  • There should be an array of different possibilities for Woodpecker to send warnings to civilians:

  • Mobile phones should receive targeted text messages with simple, but helpful information

  • For those that don't have a mobile phone (or are unable to get cell service), land-lines should also be a way for people to hear the same message.

  • In remotely-located villages we should be able to place small 3G devices on top of churches, next to the bells, and spread that same message with an amplified speaker. We should be able to buy parts to assemble those devices on common electronic stores.

  • In cases where there was no bell on villages, a small emergency headlight - connected to those 3G connected raspberry pi's - should go off as to indicate that there was an emergency and people needed act accordingly.

  • The system should also be able to create specific and detailed reports on sent warnings, affected areas, etc.

Assembling a team

A team of designers, developers and software testers were assembled in the first days of 2018. The goal was to develop a prototype to present to the Government and the President in the first semester of that year.

The designer - João Teixeira (check out his portfolio) - created the interface to the frontend.

It's simple, clean, easy to use and very straight-forward.It's just what the users needed. People shouldn't be bothered with chrome. It's not that easy to