Following some biblical floods earlier in the summer, this week’s sudden heatwave in the UK shows the necessity to plan for extreme weather events.

The Cranfield-led DREAM CDT – or ‘Data, Risk and Environmental Analytical Methods’ Centre for Doctoral Training – recently held its inaugural Challenge Week attended by the 2016 cohort of PhD students. The DREAM consortium, which also includes Newcastle, Cambridge and Birmingham universities, was launched last year with funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Fifteen students, including two undergraduate NERC Research Experience Placement (REP) students wanting to learn more about ‘big data’ research topics, applied the scientific approaches and skillsets being developed in their research projects to real-world problems. The event was hosted in the Centre for Competitive Creative Design (C4D) on the Cranfield campus with both teams presenting their findings on the final Friday morning.

The core datasets for the Challenge Week were derived from a collaborative research project between Cranfield, Newcastle and Birmingham universities among others called CREW (Community Resilience to Extreme Weather). This focused on five south London boroughs and investigated the impact on householders, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and local policy / decision makers for a range of geohazards such as flooding, subsidence, heatwaves, storms and droughts.

The students had the opportunity to consult with industrial experts from a range of fields such as DREAM industrial advisory board chairman Rob Sharpe (Esri UK), and board members Stephen Harris (Marsh Marine Practice), Professor John Rees (British Geological Survey, NERC) and Dr Arthur Thornton (Atkins). There was also expert advice from a trio from Cranfield – Professor Simon Pollard (the DREAM CDT principal investigator and centre champion); Professor Paul Leinster CBE (former Chief Executive of the Environment Agency); and Jason Carvalho.

One of the teams, theoretical consultancy Data Dragons, looked at medium to long-term (2025-50) risk planning for events related to climate change like flooding and cold weather, and heatwaves and droughts, as well as consequences of a predicted population increase. This is essential information for groups such as council officials and the emergency services.

The others, TeamSTORM, focused on mitigating the short-term impacts of extreme environmental events using big data. This was by the introduction of sensors in the homes of the vulnerable with the potential to alert volunteers to extremes of temperature, together with an app for use by the emergency services and first responders, as well as a database to monitor flooding and heat vulnerabilities using both the sensors and app and other sources.

Dr Stephen Hallett, Director of the DREAM CDT and one of the organisers of the Challenge Week, said: “This was the second milestone event following a symposium earlier in the year at Newcastle University involving the same set of students. I’m delighted with the week and it was fascinating to watch the teams develop different approaches and adopt alternative leadership styles.

“I think we achieved the four key aims which were driving the event – for the students to develop approaches and tools for identifying sources of risk, drivers and their impacts; to develop tools for using big data to understand environmental risks and multi-hazards; to demonstrate approaches for visualising and communicating risk; and finally to support decision making and management.”

There was time in the intensive schedule for a visit to the National Museum of Computing at nearby Bletchley Park (being shown items donated by Cranfield University some years ago), with some lighter moments supplied by the trio of Libyan students involved in the Challenge Week cooking an authentic Libyan evening meal for the group, as well as an opportunity for a night out in Milton Keynes.

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