UK Floods 2014

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River bursting its banks in Worcester

UK Floods 2014 were an issue in the United Kingdom in February 2014. This wiki page is about using OpenStreetMap in relation to these floods, and ideas for hacks which use or help to use OpenStreetMap. The page will also discuss ideas around map data improvements and limitations of this.


The floods were effecting various parts of the UK, but most severely the "Somerset Levels" (map) and areas around Salisbury (map)

Improving the map

OpenStreetMap is an editable map. The wikipedia of maps. This means we can make improvements to the map, following processes developed by the community.

No general mapping activation

The OpenStreetMap community and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team will often have an "activation" to respond to big disasters, particularly in developing world locations, by working to rapidly boost map coverage in the effected area. As an act of "crisis mapping" involving remote responders all over the world, this is exciting, but it's not really needed in this case.

In fact there's no big glaring need to improve the maps in the OSM database. The UK has a very active community of OpenStreetMappers who have already created a good map, and it should be noted that "armchair mapping" is often not welcomed or encouraged in the U.K. because this active community has worked hard to create the maps using a more careful on-the-ground mapping approach. See Armchair mapping for more on this. Some careful improvements may be possible, but the normal H.O.T. style of en masse remote mapping should be avoided in the UK for anything other than major disasters.

Another important limitation is that floods are quite temporary, and temporary data does not belong in OpenStreetMap. Because this flood was quite severe things didn't get back to normal for several months in some areas, but for the most part road closures and big changes in water coverage resolved themselves over a few weeks. Data updates reflecting these kinds of temporary situations, are not appropriate for the main OpenStreetMap database. However some people ignored this and put temporary water extents into OpenStreetMap (back to normal now in this area)

Mapping improvements we should do

There are however some updates and improvements we should do to the OpenStreetMap data. In particular, we're always looking to expand the mapping community with more people in the UK surveying on the ground and adding first hand data. If you live locally you're very welcome to get stuck in with adding any features to the map, and you may have ideas to prioritise things which are of use in the current situation. For example maybe you know of a set of houses or other features which are damaged by the current floods. They're permanent features, but they're also of interest to people assessing the situation right now.

Using OpenStreetMap and FloodHacks ideas

Some ideas for FloodHack, a big hack event at google campus in London Sunday 16th Feb. (See also 'Data APIs for floodhacks' hackpad where we're listed)

OpenStreetMap offers all sorts of interesting hacking opportunities, particularly around using our maps and map data. It's also important to realise that simply by using OpenStreetMap you are supporting it. You should be supporting it because OpenStreetMap is a uk-born not-for-profit volunteer-run community-driven fully open mapping project. It's a better thing to support than a commercially motivated corporate mapping provider which will never be fully open.

General developer info:

  • - information on tiles and javascript libraries to help you make the switch from using google maps to using OpenStreetMap.
    • Tools like Leaflet and OpenLayers will give you an javascript "API" akin to google maps API. You can build things like this awesome heatmap overlaying layers on top of OpenStreetMap basemaps.
    • ...meanwhile the thing called the OpenStreetMap API is for read/write raw data editing interactions (i.e. something completely different)
    • Overpass API offers a more flexible API which may be of wider developer use. Lets you query for things like "all the schools in Somerset area"
  • Downloading data - different ways of downloading OpenStreetMap's raw geo data (e.g. Download an England extract)
  • Develop - the developer portal (for both technical users and core OpenStreetMap developers)

Hack ideas

In general we have lots of half finished lists of potential hacking ideas. See Top Ten Tasks and ideas for the next OSMLondon hack weekend. But let's list some flood related hack ideas

Here are some big ideas. but we could do with adding some smaller more do-able in a weekend hack ideas.

Temporary floodwater extents collaborative editing platform

Because floodwater extents are temporary and change over time, the data doesn't really belong in OpenStreetMap, but where does it belong? And could a platform allow people to collaborate on mapping floodwater extents? How could this system handle the temporal aspects. Imagine the ultimate output, a map with a time slider, letting you see where the floodwater was up to, and when. This is quite different proposition to OpenStreetMap style collaboration, and belongs on a different system stored in a separate database. It could take account of satellite and aerial snapshots in time, where the entire flood extent can be mapped at a point in time, but how can crowd contributions be used to fill in the gaps in that picture? e.g. someone knows that the on this particular road, the floodwaters had risen to this particular coordinate, at this particular time. Allow input and storage of that data, and then feed it into the display somehow.

Look at tools like which layers data on top of OpenStreetMap in a community contributable way, and on a timeline. Perhaps extend this tool to do community editable polygon areas. Sahana Eden already allows community-editable polygons on top of OpenStreetMap (& other) layers. Also look at OKFN's time mapper.

Open Source Flood modelling

Modelling floods (and more broadly Hydrology) is a sophisticated area of GIS. People pay good money for proprietary software to do this. General hack idea would be to look at the state of the art within the open source arena. The QGIS community have listed some Open Source hydrology projects. Deploy it for the UK, perhaps using OSM river data. This generally requires a digital elevation model, which OpenStreetMap doesn't offer directly. Where the OSM community have used DEMs extensively already, has been producing relief maps. Often these have used free SRTM data. For a UK focus it may be better to use Ordnance Survey Opendata#Terrain 50.

OpenStreetMap POIs and road data could combine in an interesting way with the outputs of this project. e.g. Which schools/shops/etc get flooded, and which roads close, if river X rises by 10 metres?

Another interesting thing (which has little to do with UK floods) which could help OpenStreetMap would be to model hydrology worldwide, and figure out where the most significant missing rivers are in OpenStreetMap (or create a public domain rivers dataset which we can compare with OpenStreetMap rivers data) For example Hydrological analysis of SRTM data could tell us there's likely to be a river flowing northwestwards here in the Congo (it's not on OpenStreetMap)

BASINS is a hydrology modelling tool developed by the US Environment Agency, largely built with open source technology. I looked at some of the requirements for using OpenStreetMap data with this tool. It was basically feasible, but some other data is needed (from memory, profiles of rivers and other hydrological features). Other data are flow rates, precipitation etc. SK53 (talk) 18:53, 16 February 2014 (UTC)

Note that landuse is a very important parameter for modelling surface runoff in most hydrology models.

TODO more ideas here