Your cell phone camera could be the key to greater flood protection

Published 9:00 am Tuesday, June 20, 2023

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The key to better flood protection, navigation and eventual elimination is more information, and your smart phone.

Flood information gets more useful when residents and first responders can access it in real time, right down to specific block-level accuracy.

Orange leaders hope to help the effort accumulate and distribute that information throughout Southeast Texas.

During a meeting this month of the Orange City Council, Texas A&M Data Scientist Dr. Bahareh Alizadeh talked about the use of artificial intelligence in helping communities map flood risks.

Under the direction of project lead and principal investigator Dr. Amir H Behzadan, associate professor of construction science, Alizadeh researched existing flood detection systems and found them to be insufficient.

Her presentation revealed harmful impacts of flooding in the United States, which include more than 2,000 fatalities in the last 10 years and predicts an increase in flood activity, along with triple the economic costs.

“Because water levels change over time and move downstream, we need to have timely access to water level depth in urban areas for successful search and rescue operations,” Alizadeh said.

Photos uploaded to can be used to calculate and share real time flooding information based on information set up through stop sign collection. (Courtesy photo)

Her study of data collection tools argued there was an insufficient amount of flood gauges — less than 10,000 nationwide. Another critique explored the changing landscape of urban areas and found stop signs, which are used with a national standard, provide an alternative to data collection that could replace what Alizadeh refers to as “outdated FEMA flood maps.”

Charles X. White, president and CEO of Charity Productions, was on hand to address the council as a member of the community outreach team and research partner. He touted the benefits of citizen participation in flood mapping.

There are no fees involved, he said, adding there is an active smart phone app created at Texas A&M that uses existing stop signs as flood gauges.

“So, if we turn those 950 million stop signs into data collection points, or flood gauges, that’s a benefit,” he said. “The idea is from Orange to Houston, having a series of data collection where the citizens could take a picture of a stop sign, upload it into the software and it becomes part of a big database.”

The program needs photos taken of submerged stop signs to be shared on an app platform Texas A&M created called Blupix.

When you take a photo with your phone, your phone records a GPS location of where you are. The app uses that location and uses Google Street View to find that same stop sign without the flood, so it now has a pair of photos of the same sign.

Built-in artificial intelligence runs a computer model to detect the red octagonal shape of the sign, and the length of the pole under the stop sign determines how much water exists in that area.

Before the flood, the program has already determined the length of the pole, allowing a reading of water levels during a storm to be known.

The flood collection app, Blupix can be downloaded and is used to collect pre- and post-flood photographs of stop signs.

According to Alizadeh, the technology has been used successfully in several communities. The wider usage of the tool is meant to enhance its data set.

“We have collected so far about 500 photos, so it’s public and running since last year, like a year and a half ago, people are using it but we are trying to get more communities’ help,” she said.

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— Written by Shari Hardin