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Playing with disasters to help save lives

Media Release
16 June 2004

Playing with disasters to help save lives

Two Auckland students are off to Lisbon this month after a team of researchers at The University of Auckland developed a computer programme which could make dealing with disasters a whole lot easier.

Cameron Skinner and Jonathan Teutenberg from the Artificial Intelligence Group in the Department of Computer Science are working on the Robocup Rescue Simulation Project which aims to simulate the emergency response when a city is hit by a natural disaster.

The Robocup Rescue Simulation Project was established by Japanese researchers after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. The project simulates the effects of an earthquake and its aftermath, and the response of emergency services.

Each year a competition is held to test the abilities of various research groups around the world. Teams are given a simulated earthquake situation and scores are based on the number of civilians who survive and the area of the city that is saved.

Last year, "The Black Sheep" - the Auckland team - entered the competition for the first time and was placed fourth out of 20 teams. They were also invited to join the technical committee which guides the development of the competition and decides on the rules.

"The competition drives the research forward," says Pukekohe resident Cameron, the research programmer for the team.

"It gives us an opportunity to compare our work with other leading researchers from around the world, and it gives everyone an incentive to write software that works better than before."

This year the team have again qualified to compete in the Robocup competition in Lisbon in late June against 20 teams from Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East. Cameron, who is working on his PhD, and Jonathan, a recent Master of Science graduate, will be attending this year.

The competition involves three days of heats, followed by two days of semi-finals and finals.

"At the competition last year we looked at what others did right and what we did wrong during the day and then sat up all night rewriting our programmes to account for those factors," says Jonathan, an Onehunga resident.

The group are working with Auckland Urban Search and Rescue (USAR), the fire department and the Police to develop these tools.

Computer science lecturer and a member of the Artificial Intelligence Group, Dr Mike Barley says the team hopes to be able to produce prototypes for systems that Civil Defence and USAR can use to test their existing emergency management plans, and also to help with scenario development.

"Eventually, if the simulators become realistic enough, we will be able to ask the computer what would happen if an earthquake of a certain magnitude occurred, how many lives could be saved if we had two extra fire trucks, and so on," says Dr Barley.


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