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How WhatsApp is helping researchers predict deadly landslides in Colombia

The research team includes colleagues from Heriot-Watt University, the University of Edinburgh and the National University of Colombia.

UK researchers are using information sent via WhatsApp to help predict deadly landslides in Colombia.

The team has been training the community of an informal settlement in Medellin City to monitor how their hillside is shifting over time.

The residents, who live in an area at high risk of landslides, send regular photos via WhatsApp to the researchers to enable them to monitor the situation.

The research team, which includes colleagues from Heriot-Watt University, the University of Edinburgh and the National University of Colombia, use the images to advise residents on how to mitigate the problems through draining and can warn them if a landslide is imminent.

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(Jonathan Brady/PA)

Dr Gabriela Medero, associate professor in Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering at Heriot-Watt, said: “We trained them to use a combination of civil and geotechnical engineering methodologies so they know what they are looking for and where they should be monitoring.

“They are taking regular photographs at set points from carefully mapped angles during and after periods of rain.

“Using WhatsApp is important as it records the time and date automatically and is a platform which is globally accessible.

“These photographs allow us to see relative movements and early signs of differential movements as well as highlighting where water enters and exits the slopes, the volumes of run-off and the impact of paved and unpaved areas.

“Just a few 100 metres from where we’ve been working, there were more than 500 deaths due to a tragic landslide back in 1987, and in April this year, 17 people lost their lives in a landslide in the nearby city of Manizales.”

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Community members putting drainage mitigation works in place in Colombia (Heriot-Watt University/PA)

Around 44,000 households living in informal settlements in the Medellin Metropolitan Area are said to be at risk. Many of the structures have no proper foundations.

The team, which includes planners, engineers, geologists and architects, has been teaching residents how to monitor water ingress, engineer emergency draining solutions and identify early warning signs of a landslide.

They found that many people in the area, which is perched at the top of a high slope, feared eviction by the city council if they spoke up about the risks.

The team has been facilitating meetings between the local council and the community to enable them to work together to create longer-term drainage works.

Dr Medero added: “We believe this model of monitoring, engineering and community involvement has the potential to work globally.”

Dr Soledad Garcia Ferrari, senior lecturer in Architectural Design from the University of Edinburgh, said: “Our aim is for the community to learn and share learning of the causes of landslides through monitoring the territory and for communities to continue to take ownership when implementing measures directed at mitigating landslide risk.”

The initial project is being funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund through the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Additional funding has been secured through the Fund to roll out the model to two more communities in Medellin City in 2018.

The new project will also apply the model to a favela in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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