Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Michelle Erdenesanaa headshot

This App Makes Flood Data Visual With Augmented Reality

tidal flooding venice italy - flood - floods

Tidal flooding creeps above the door line in Venice, Italy. (Image: Cristina Gottardi/Unsplash) 

What began as a typical August storm made landfall on Texas’ middle coast and grew into the largest tropical cyclone rainfall event the U.S. had ever seen. Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 60 inches of rain over southeastern Texas in 2017, inundating areas with up to 10 feet of flooding, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Harvey is just one of the increasingly frequent storm surges to hit communities around the world as storm patterns intensify due to climate change. Coastal communities within hurricane zones are far from the only ones affected, as rising global temperatures also increase the risk of floods caused by elevated river levels, dam or levee failures, and rapid snow melt. 

To put the economic cost into perspective, river-related flood damage to the world's urban areas is projected to triple to $535 billion annually by 2030, according to the World Resources Institute. Meanwhile, damages caused by storm surges and sea-level rise are projected to increase tenfold to $177 billion annually by the end of the decade. 

Visualizing flood data with augmented reality 

Flood risk data is often difficult to interpret. Typical mapping technology can convey the objective risk and geography of flooding events, but stakeholders and politicians may not feel the realistic community impact without a more comprehensive view. 

That’s why the global consultancy WSP is looking to communicate flood risk with an interactive, immersive approach. Its suite of technologies includes FloodVue, an app that recreates historical, current, and future flood conditions and demonstrates the impact of mitigation solutions. 

The FloodVue app uses augmented reality to place the viewer’s perspective directly in a four-dimensional, digital representation of the predicted flood conditions in their location. Augmented reality is the step between real life and virtual reality that combines an image of the real world with a digital image — think: the wildly popular smartphone game Pokémon Go.  

This is a much different experience than the two-dimensional images most flood mapping tools use to represent predicted flood waters, which might not resonate as strongly, according to WSP.  

“To dictate back to the community where it's going to flood, how much rainfall is needed to flood, how to protect their assets — that's where we want the software to go and how it can help communities, public agencies, and governments overall,” Tyer Jones, water national business executive for WSP’s U.S. branch, told TriplePundit. 

FloodVue’s map is built on a a layered foundation of data: a water surface elevation grid, a ground surface grid, and building footprints. The app’s aerial view uses color-coded sections to highlight flooding intensity over time for a larger area. But most arresting is FloodVue’s 360-degree, ground-level view: a realistic rendering of historical, current, and future flood levels superimposed onto detailed street views. 

Why data visualization matters for infrastructure planning

Simon Dale-Lace, WSP’s U.K. technical director of water management and innovation, demonstrated the FloodVue app in a March webinar.  When navigating the floodplain from ground level, the app also notes the depth of water at any given location, with and without mitigation projects in place. Toggling between mitigated and unmitigated flood levels confronts viewers with the undeniable importance of flood-resistant infrastructure. 

Inland states are just as likely to experience flooding as coastal states since surface water flooding from storm surges is just as common as coastal or river flooding. As such, Dale-Lace's presentation covered FloodVue case studies at the consultancy’s flood mitigation projects including the Garden Plain area in Wichita, Kansas.

“As people continue to populate the Earth, as we continue to need more housing and more development, we change the impervious cover in a particular area,” Jones told 3p. “As you expand roads and bridges, that forms impervious cover that changes the way water flows in that geography. You're never going to get ahead of Mother Nature.”

Countries like Denmark have developed relatively advanced flood-resistant infrastructure to adapt to changing climates, Jones said. Meanwhile countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, where flooding has decimated the coastline, often suffer the brunt of climate change-induced flooding. 

“The knowledge of where [flooding] is having big impacts is out there,” Jones said. “But the sharing of ideas, the recommendation of projects, and the funding of those projects — I think that happens amongst a select group of individuals in geographies that have the money to support the projects.” 

Michelle Erdenesanaa headshot

Michelle is a freelance writer with experience in international nonprofit work, arts and culture writing, and creative copywriting. She is particularly devoted to stories that highlight cultural expansion and our interdependence.

Read more stories by Michelle Erdenesanaa