A Beacon of change with seismic-smart software

 |   Microsoft NZ News Centre

Becaon App Interface Shown on Smartphone Screen

Situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, earthquakes are a frequent occurrence in New Zealand. People and businesses, including commercial property owners, and public infrastructure, are all at the mercy of the unknown. The large earthquake in Canterbury, New Zealand back in 2010, and the aftershocks that hit Christchurch in February 2011, highlighted a gap in analysis and response times organisations faced in the aftermath of an earthquake. Businesses stopped because people simply didn’t know how the earthquake had impacted their buildings and infrastructure, or whether it was safe to return to work.

However, Beca, a professional services consultancy with a strong focus in structural engineering is changing that. Beca is a large, New Zealand-headquartered, employee-owned company with a 100-year history and 3,300 staff across New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia and the Pacific Islands. By coupling extensive seismic engineering expertise and software development capabilities, they developed the Beacon System, a real-time notification and response service that enables the community and businesses to better assess and manage the impact of earthquakes on their infrastructure assets.

The race against time for visibility.

Beacon estimates how much the ground shook in a particular location, and analyses how vulnerable an infrastructure asset is, before sending an alert in the form of a text, email or a data message through a mobile application to owners, tenants, and the crisis management team. Beacon users can also link up with the Beca team for insights to assist their decision-making postearthquake.

“An earthquake strikes, and people don’t know how big it was, how far away it was, whether it impacted their building, or if it’s safe to go back into the building. So, we wanted to develop some technology that would allow them to have that information in real time, immediately after the event and then start making decisions about whether they should be in the building or not. That was the genesis of what Beacon does,” said Neil Horsfield, General Manager – Structures at Beca.

Beacon started as a proof of concept which leveraged a Geospatial Imaging System (GIS). The biggest challenge facing the development team was the whole process of generating a map for analysis within the GIS system. The GIS platform that was running on a server did not meet the time-sensitive demands of Beacon and it wasn’t scalable. “The GIS system wasn’t really designed to generate several maps all the same time, and it was starting to take us anywhere from 30 minutes to about an hour to generate all the maps that Beacon needed,” said Luan You, Associate Software Engineer at Beca.

Lighting the Beacon with Microsoft.

For Beacon to work the way it was envisioned and to take analysis from four hours to minutes or even seconds, the team knew they had to tap into Microsoft. “We’ve been aligned with Microsoft technologies and we wanted to choose a technology that was going to deliver what we needed -we needed the scalability, the resilience, the reliability, the security,” said Bruce Neville, Senior Director -Technology Consulting at Beca.

Together with Microsoft, Beca and the Beacon team customised the integration of Azure Maps, enabling them to migrate the old GIS system maps to the new Azure Maps. The team found the customised integration of Azure Maps to be more reliable and faster than their previous GIS system, “We ended up being able to optimise it a lot more than we originally planned. Nowadays, we probably take two or three minutes for all maps to generate, it’s a lot more scalable and a lot more reliable,“ said Luan.

Iterating faster with integrated technologies.

“The team now has a lot of Microsoft services running for Beacon. The main one is the Azure Web App that runs the Beacon website and web job which processes all the events in the background. We are also using Xamarin along with Azure Notification Hub to deliver mobile alerts,” continued Luan, “That’s been fantastic for us as well – not having to set up our own servers in house. We are also using App Insights, for monitoring.”

As solutions get more complex, the team will need to integrate more products into Beacon. “We do want to work with things like HoloLens, for example. And it’s easy to integrate HoloLens into the wider Microsoft technology stack,” said Bruce.

Beacon saves critical time.

“So, what Beacon does is gather the data in real time and report on the expected impact on an asset,” said Neil, “and that frees up more time for analysis and insight. It’s time saved that can be used for more useful things like communicating with people and planning next steps.” Beacon analyses the data and categorises impacted assets into high, medium, and low risk, with corresponding colour codes of red, yellow and white. Based on these codes, Beacon users can get a quick assessment of the potential for earthquake damage to each asset.

Empowering asset owners and the community.

Property owners, tenants, and the community at large now have information that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Thanks to Beacon, they can quickly make an assessment of the impact of an earthquake on their property, and respond faster.

“It’s starting to give people some reassurance about their everyday lives and providing information that allows organisations to make decisions about the safety of their people,” said Neil.

Towards a smarter Beacon of hope.

Beacon’s future looks set to get even smarter. Powered by emerging technologies and Microsoft expertise, there is more in the development pipeline for Beacon. ”In the next evolution – we will be integrating the service with instrumentation. So, that will involve putting accelerometers into buildings. The accelerometers will help us to really pinpoint, with better accuracy, the nature of damage or changes to a building and be able to report those changes in real time,“ said Neil, “the potential is huge.”

“We needed to choose a technology that was going to deliver what we need – we needed the scalability, the resilience, the reliability, the security.”

Bruce Neville, Senior Director – Technology Consulting, Beca

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