GeoPolicy: Bridging the gap between science and decision makers – a new tool for nuclear emergencies affecting food and agriculture

GeoPolicy: Bridging the gap between science and decision makers – a new tool for nuclear emergencies affecting food and agriculture

Amelia Lee Zhi Yi, the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has developed an online system to assist in improving the response capabilities of authorities in the event of an emergency caused by natural hazards. The Decision Support System for Nuclear Emergencies Affecting Food and Agriculture (DSS4NAFA), provides a clear overview of radioactive contamination of crops and agricultural lands through improved data management and visualisation, it also assists in decision support processes by suggesting management actions to decision makers. In this interview, we have the pleasure to introduce Ms Amelia Lee Zhi Yi, working at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture to speak about DSS4NAFA.

Nuclear Emergency Response (NER) for food and agriculture – why is that important and what does it entail?

In the event of a nuclear or radiological emergency, the response should be swift in the interest of human health. After ensuring the well-being of the population, it is necessary to prioritise the assessment of possible radioactive contamination of crops and agricultural lands to avoid ingestion of radioactivity.

Proper data management, data visualisation and risk communication are essential for efficient response to a nuclear emergency. Factors that should be considered for such response include support for sampling and laboratory analysis, optimal allocation of manpower and analytical instruments, and integrated communication between stakeholders.

To make well-informed decisions on for instance planting and food restrictions, food safety authorities need to have a good understanding of the radiological conditions after a fallout event. This is accomplished through the collection of environmental samples such as soil and plants, and food products that are then analysed using consistent methods in qualified laboratories. Further, these data should be displayed in an intuitive manner so that authorities will be able to interpret the data under stressful, time-bound conditions. Finally, to reduce confusion and clearly communicate decisions made to the public, standardised communication protocols of the decisions made by policymakers need to be implemented.

How can technology assist us in this process? What is DSS4NAFA?

Innovative information technology (IT)-based methods can assist in optimising processes in NER. Some examples include streamlining data transfer using cloud-based platforms paired with mobile technologies, facilitating decision making using advanced visualisation tools, and communicating risk to the public using pre-defined correspondence templates.

The Decision Support System for Nuclear Emergencies Affecting Food and Agriculture (DSS4NAFA), is a cloud-based IT-DSS tool developed by the Soil and Water Management & Crop Nutrition Laboratory, under the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. While it was originally developed as a system for nuclear emergency response management and communication, its ability to discern data quality, to provide user-friendly spatio-temporal visualisations for decision makers, and ease in creation of communication materials makes it a good candidate tool for usage in natural hazard risk mitigation.

The beta version of DSS4NAFA is planned to be released in August 2018 for testing by volunteer member states.

General overview of how DSS4NAFA works. After a nuclear or radiological fallout event affecting food and agriculture, the system assists decision makers by allocating samplers and laboratories according to proximity, allows for data to be input into a mobile device and sent to a cloud server immediately, and visualises data for intuitive decision making (Source FAO-IAEA).

How does DSS4NAFA support public authorities in emergencies?

DSS4NAFA contains modules which provide logistical support to decision makers in defining sampling location, sampler allocation and laboratory allocation. It also functions as a powerful visual interpretation tool that brings together multi-dimensional data usually handled to make decisions on planting and food restrictions in a nuclear emergency response situation.  Some of the functionalities of the modules are as below:

Data management:

  • Standardised data input with pre-determined data entry fields and format
  • Data housed within one server to ensure ease of data analysis
  • All data collected in the field using mobile devices and are sent directly to the server

Data visualisation:

  • GIS based visualisation for instinctive understanding of situation on the ground
  • “Logmap” for at-a-glance sampler and laboratory analyses status
  • Comprehensive information, such as current and historical decision actions, intuitively displayed on the Food Restriction Dashboard

Logistics and decision support:

  • Sampling assignments proposed based on crop calendar and land use type
  • Food and planting restrictions suggested based on the movable levels set by authorities
  • Public communication module


The Food Restriction Dashboard is a platform in DSS4NAFA whereby radioactivity information is collated considering the spatial distribution and time resolution of the accident, and suggests food and planting restrictions based on the level of risk and the specified tolerance levels (Source FAO-IAEA).

What feedback did you get from real users during the design/development of the DSS?

The development of DSS4NAFA was highly iterative and findings from the process were invaluable. Some lessons learned during its development include the necessity for stakeholder involvement during the design process, the usage of a “one-house approach” for centralised data, and the importance of building a tool that is flexible enough to be used during emergency response and routine monitoring operations.

The system has generated a lot of interest when shown during several IAEA workshops and conferences such as at EGU, indicating the need for this type of system.

What do you think will be the main challenges in the application of the DSS4NAFA?

Two challenges are foreseen in the deployment of DSS4NAFA. The first is to explain the benefits of the system to countries with pre-existing Nuclear Emergency Response systems. We are confident that we can succeed as DSS4NAFA is modular, thus Member States can select and implement the components that suit their needs best.

Secondly, there could be some learning associated with the implementation of DSS4NAFA. To facilitate this process for governmental data analysts, user experience will be one of the major focus for improvement during the beta testing phase. We strive to develop DSS4NAFA such that the system will be intuitive for use to its fullest potential, even with minimal prior training.

The development of DSS4NAFA is part of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division Mandate in Preparedness and Response to Nuclear and Radiological Emergencies Affecting Food and Agriculture to promote the management of intra- and interagency emergency preparedness and response to nuclear accidents and radiological events affecting food and agriculture, including in the application of agricultural countermeasures.

by Jonathan Rizzi, Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research

Jonathan Rizzi is the incoming ECS representative for the EGU’s Natural Hazard division. He has a bachelor in GIS and Remote Sensing and a master and a PhD in Environmental Sciences. He is a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research and has worked in the field of climate change and risk assessment for the last several years.

Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on the EGU Natural Hazards (NH) Division blog. Read the original post here.

GeoPolicy: Assessing environmental and social impact – applying policy in big industry

GeoPolicy: Assessing environmental and social impact – applying policy in big industry

Former EGU Science Communications Fellow Edvard Glücksman is our second guest blogger for the newly established EGUPolicy column. Edvard is a Senior Environmental & Social Specialist at the UK-based consultancy Wardell Armstrong and an External Stakeholder Affiliate at the University of Exeter. He describes his work along the research-policy-industry interface.

The collapse of a wastewater dam at an iron ore mine last November left 19 dead and triggered an environmental crisis in Brazil’s River Doce basin. The mine is a joint venture between Vale SA and Australian-owned BHP Billiton, and the operators are now expected to pay the Brazilian government around USD $7 billion in compensation for environmental and community damages.

Such large-scale industrial accidents devastate entire communities and inflict long-term reputational damage to local and international companies working in the area. In my role at Wardell Armstrong, an independent UK-based consultancy, I work to align project design and operational layout to national policy frameworks and international standards of best practice, such as the World Bank’s IFC Sustainability Framework.

Improving the deal for local communities

Independent Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) studies are a fundamental requirement for operators to secure funding from increasingly careful lenders, who are reluctant to invest in projects that threaten to damage their reputation. By identifying, mitigating, and managing negative impacts of industrial projects, I work to reduce a project’s risk to the environment and nearby communities.

Conventional environmental impact assessments focus on a range of variables, such as water use and quality, noise and vibration, air quality, soils, or greenhouse gas emissions. Increasingly, these are complemented by cultural, economic, and demographic variables, as well as ecosystem services, which frame natural ecosystems according to their economic contribution to society. Public participation, known as stakeholder engagement, is a key element of the ESIA process.

Under the broader umbrella of the rapidly emerging notion of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), I also liaise with project operators to maximise the short- and long-term positive contribution of industry to local communities. As a result of decades of expensive reputational damage, the mining industry has been particularly proactive in implementing CSR schemes, convening the biggest players under the auspices of the International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM).

CSR is the idea that companies should positively contribute to society, above and beyond legal and profit-making commitments. Although hardly a new or radical concept, the notion that industry should be socially responsible is brought to the fore by heightened scrutiny of industrial accidents. Negative publicity, amplified by social and conventional media, sways public opinion and investor confidence, translating into financial risk. As CSR progressively enters national and international policy agendas, including across the EU, an increasingly diverse range of companies and industries adopt its tenets as a core part of their business model.

Tools for the next generation

I ended up in this job after several years of juggling primary research and science policy work. My doctoral thesis was in biology but, having studied sociology in an undergraduate degree, I always enjoyed working at the interface of science and society. During my doctoral years, I also took regular breaks from the lab, including on Secondment to the UK Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST).

In my experience, most of today’s science jobs require interdisciplinary thought and keen communication skills. As a consultant, I apply natural and social science concepts across the private sector, bridging the gap between researchers, the policy arena, and profit-driven industrial stakeholders. Having previously worked in science communication roles, including at the EGU, I have a keen appreciation for the role of accessibility within the policymaking arena. In industry, where non-specialists frequently juggle with confusing scientific concepts, compounded by cultural discrepancies and linguistic barriers, the role of communication skills are thus just as vital as technical ability.

When working within and around policy issues, some of the biggest impacts can be achieved by raising awareness to the next generation of policymakers. To that end, I also lecture undergraduates at the University of Exeter about broader sustainability issues, industry-community relations, and the impact assessment process. Some of my students are mining engineers and, although the environmental and social dimensions of industrial projects are increasingly in the limelight, conventional engineering modules rarely highlight the importance of these ‘softer’ dimensions of their trade. As policy requirements become more stringent and the investment community becomes increasingly risk-averse, university courses will steadily shift to reflect the changing landscape.

Edvard Glücksman, Senior Environmental & Social Specialist at Wardell Armstrong

Edvard Glücksman at the Wardell Armstrong's Turo office, built on the site of the Wheal Jane mine in Cornwall, UK

Edvard Glücksman at the Wardell Armstrong’s Truro office, built on the site of the Wheal Jane mine in Cornwall, UK


GeoTalk: Matthew Agius on how online communication can help identify earthquake impact

In this edition of GeoTalk, we’re talking to Matthew Agius, a seismologist from the University of Malta and the Young Scientist Representative for the EGU’s Seismology Division. Matthew gave an enlightening talk during the EGU General Assembly on how communication on online platforms such as Facebook can help scientists assess the effect of earthquakes. Here he shares his findings and what wonders online data can reveal…

Before we get going, can you tell us a little about you’re area of research and what got you interested in using online communications to complement our understanding of earthquakes and their impact?

My area of research is the study of tectonic structures and dynamics using different seismic techniques. The regions I have studied the most are Tibet and the Central Mediterranean. During my student days many friends wondered about my research and I felt that there was a need to reach out for the public in order to eliminate misconceptions on how the Earth works, in particular about the seismic activity close to home – Malta. This led to the creation of a website with daily updates on the seismic activity in the Mediterranean. We set up an online questionnaire for people to report earthquake-related shaking. The questionnaire proved to be successful; hundreds of entries have been submitted following a number of earthquakes. This large dataset has valuable information because it gives an insight on the demographics in relation to earthquake hazard of the tiny nation.

How can social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter be used to assess the impact of earthquakes?

Nowadays the general public has access to smart phones connected to the internet, which have become readily available and affordable. This resulted in a rapid use of social websites. People increasingly tend to express themselves in ‘near’ real-time online. Furthermore, smartphones are equipped with various technologies such as a GPS receiver and an accelerometer – the basic set up of a seismic station – and also a camera. Altogether this has the potential to provide an unprecedented level of information about the local experience of an earthquake. Its immediate analysis can also supplement instrument-based estimates of early earthquake location and magnitude.

Out in the field – Matthew Aguis in the Grand Canyon. (Credit: Matthew Aguis)

Out in the field – Matthew Agius in the Grand Canyon. (Credit: Matthew Agius)

What sort of information can you gather from sites like Facebook or Twitter, and what can it tell you?

Users can post comments as well as photographs directly on a page, say a page dedicated to earthquakes. Such post are time stamped and can also have geolocation information. Although the posted information might seem too basic, the collective data from many users can be used to establish the local feeling in ‘real time’. Another way is to have a specific application that analyses the text expressed by social media users. Similar applications have already been considered in a number of regions such as USA and Italy, and have shown very interesting social sentiment expressed during and after an earthquake shake.

How do the earthquake sentiments relate to the geology? Can you see any patterns between what people say and share online and the intensity of the quake in a particular area?

This is a new area of research that is still being investigated. Earthquake intensity, shaking and damage in a local context, are known to vary from one place to another. These variations are primarily due to either the underlying geology, the seismic wave propagation complexities, or a combination of both. So far various mathematical models have been published for famous areas such as San Francisco Bay; soon scientists will have the opportunity to compare their models with information on people’s sentiment gathered in this new way. Such sentiment is expected to relate to the geology, to some extent.

And another shot of Matthew in the field – this time from Mount Etna. (Credit: Matthew Aguis)

And another shot of Matthew in the field – this time from Mount Etna. (Credit: Matthew Agius)

What are the difficulties of dealing with this sort of data, and how do you overcome them?

This type of data compilation is known as crowdsourcing. Although it is has powerful leads, one has to take careful measures on how to interpret the data. For example one must not assume that everyone has a public social profile on the internet where to posts his/her sentiment. One also has to consider that mobile phone coverage is sometimes limited to cities leaving out large, less inhabited areas without a network. Another limitation can be related to the list of specific keywords used during text analysis, a typical keyword could be ‘shake’; users might be using this term in a completely different context instead of when the ground is shaking! I think the best way to overcome such difficulties is to combine this data with current seismic monitoring systems; upon which an event is verified with the seismic data from across the investigated region.

During your talk you proposed other ideas for data analysis, how can it be used to support civil protection services and inform the public?

Until now social sentiment with regards to earthquakes has been studied through the use of Twitter or Facebook. But citizens are also making use of other online platforms such as news portals. All this information should ideally be retrieved and analysed in order to understand the earthquake sentiment of an area better. Furthermore, such studies must also be able to gather the sentiment in multiple languages and establish geolocation information from clues in the user’s text. I think it is time to implement a system to be used by civil protection services, whereby immediately after an earthquake has been established, an automatic alert is sent via a dedicated phone app and, at the same time, a web bot crawls the web to ‘read’ and analyse what people are expressing across multiple platforms. A felt map can then be generated in real time. This could be very useful for  civil protection services during a major disaster, helping them to redirect their salvage efforts as civilian phone calls become clogged.

Matthew also mans Seismoblog, a blog dedicated to the young seismologists of the European Geosciences Union – keep up with the latest seismology news and research on Seismoblog here.

Geosciences column: Shelter island – building a barrier to protect the coast

The latest Geosciences Column features recent research into tsunami hazards and explains how island building out to sea can help protect buildings on the shore…

Barrier reefs are well known for holding off the wrath of the ocean and sheltering the serene lagoons that stretch between them and the mainland. Barrier islands possess the same protective power, taking the impact of waves that have built up across the ocean and dissipating their energy before they break on the continent. Now, a team of Spanish and Columbian scientists have shown how this barrier island effect can be harnessed to protect communities from the worst of ocean waves – the tsunami.

Tsunamis are generated when vertical faults beneath the seabed slip, causing a large earthquake (over magnitude 5 on the Richter scale) and displacing a huge volume of water. They pose a greater hazard than earthquakes alone, and in seismically active coastal areas they are a significant concern. One such area is the seismic belt that shadows the coastline between Ecuador and Columbia, where the Nazca Plate subducts beneath the South American.  There have been six major quakes along the belt in the last century, the most recent of which was a magnitude 7.7 quake that resulted in a devastating tsunami and the destruction of an entire island within the Mira River Delta in 1979.

Spot the difference. Top: the island of El Guano prior to the 1979 tsunami; bottom: the same area following the tsunami. (Credit: Otero et al. 2014)

Spot the difference. Top: the island of El Guano prior to the 1979 tsunami; bottom: the same area following the tsunami. (Credit: Otero et al. 2014)

In the Columbian department of Nariño alone, the 1979 tsunami resulted in the loss of over 450 lives and 3080 homes. But the devastation would have been greater if it weren’t for El Guano, a sandy barrier island that was once present just off the country’s Pacific coast. By modelling tsunami as it happened, and how it would unfold if it occurred again today, Luis Otero and his colleagues from the University of Norte, Columbia, and the Environmental Hydraulics Institute IH Cantabria, Spain, showed just how good a barrier the island was – cutting the energy transferred to the island city of Tumaco by up to 60%.

It’s not the first time natural defences have been shown to protect the coast. Indeed, studies of the 2006 Boxing Day tsunami in Indonesia have shown that reefs, mangroves, beaches and dunes all provide the coast some protection by absorbing the tsunami’s initial impact and slowing the speed of the advancing wave.

How flooding would differ if El Guano island was present: (a) shows the current situation and (b) shows what would happen if the island was recreated. The white regions represent the areas that are not flooded and the black line shows the shoreline. (Credit: Otero et al. 2014)

What a difference an island makes: (a) shows the current situation and (b) shows what would happen if the island was present. The white regions represent the areas that are not flooded and the black line shows the shoreline. (adapted from Otero et al. 2014)

Tsunami hazard in this region is both high and likely, and the team show that rebuilding the island would be a worthwhile engineering effort if the government hopes to afford the area the same protection it had in ’79 in the future. Elongating the island would increase its protective potential even further, as would reshaping the it to form three similarly shaped barriers to cut the energy transferred to the Columbian coastline beyond.

Otero’s tsunami model showed such engineering would offer tremendous protection to Tumaco and the other inhabitants of the Mira River Delta in the event of a tsunami – particularly one that occurred at high tide. But because Tumaco is such a sizable coastal city, some unprotected areas would remain.

Currently, the government’s focus is on establishing a swift and effective early warning an evacuation strategy, but a barrier island could provide a big boost to the safety of the local population and the security of local infrastructure.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer


Otero, L. J., Restrepo, J. C., and Gonzalez, M.: Tsunami hazard assessment in the southern Colombian Pacific basin and a proposal to regenerate a previous barrier island as protection, Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 14, 1155-1168, 2014.