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Geoinformatics Production for Urban Disasters

Risk Reduction: A Zero Cost Solution
Conference Paper in Communications in Computer and Information Science November 2013
DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-45025-9_32




2 authors, including:
Xun Guo Lin
Civil Aviation Safety Authority

Some of the authors of this publication are also working on these related projects:

Helicoter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) Sector Risk Profile View project

All in-text references underlined in blue are linked to publications on ResearchGate,

letting you access and read them immediately.

Available from: Xun Guo Lin

Retrieved on: 01 November 2016

Geoinformatics Production for Urban Disasters

Risk Reduction: A Zero Cost Solution
Zhichong Zou1 and Xunguo Lin2

Department of Urban Planning, School of Architecture,

Harbin Institute of Technology. Harbin 150001, Heilongjiang, China
CSIRO Computational Informatics,
Canberra 2601, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Abstract. Catastrophic events (such as natural disasters) bring more

damages to urban area than rural places because of high density of human
population, properties and infrastructures. Geo-informatics is critical for
all stages of disaster management. It is critical for risk assessment of
natural disasters. Based on a research project of urban natural disaster
vulnerability measurement and risk assessment, this paper illustrates a
zero cost solution of geo-informatics semi-automatic production by using
open-source and free-access geo-software. In order to enrich attributes to
meet the requirements of risk assessment, methods of combining the produced geo-informatics with other format of geo-data (e.g. DEM, raster
layers, vector layers, Microsoft Excel files, etc.) are introduced. The
geo-informatics developed from this research forms a basis for disaster
vulnerability measurement which is a part of disaster risk assessment.
Keywords: Geo-informatics, GIS data production, natural disasters,
urban risk reduction.


One of the priority purposes of the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 for
disaster risk reduction is the use of knowledge, innovation and education to build
a culture of safety and resilience at all levels of government [1].
According to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) disaster data and statistics report, in the past three decades
(1980 2011) there were 3455 oods, 2689 storms, 470 droughts, and 395 extreme temperature events occurred around the world. In the last 12 years (2000
- 2011), natural disasters have caused about 1.3 trillion USD losses, aected 2.7
billion people, and killed 1.1 million people[2].
Since all natural hazards risk components locate specically and vary spatially,
accurate risk assessment relies on geo-informatics. Geo-informatics as the basis
of decision-making information was proved to be critical and essential to natural,
technological and man-made disaster risk assessments.

This paper is supported by China Postdoctoral Science Foundation funded project.

F. Bian et al. (Eds.): GRMSE 2013, Part I, CCIS 398, pp. 313324, 2013.
c Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013


Z. Zou and X. Lin

Expenses of geo-informatics ranges vastly with dierent updating frequency,

quality, and total amount of information it carries. Contrasting with commercial sources, free geo-data and geo-software have limited comparable features.
However, they are free to add new features by further development.
Based on a study of urban natural disaster risk assessment and vulnerability
mapping which aims at improving community safety and resilience to natural
hazards, this paper shares our experience on a zero cost method for semiautomatic geo-informatics production by using free Internet resources of Google
Maps, Google Earth, and free and open-source software including QGIS, and
Orfeo Toolbox (OTB).
The rest of this paper is organized as follows. In Section 2, a method of acquiring Google high resolution satellite images and a fast geo-referencing approach
introduced. In Section 3, a pixel based Support Vector Machine (SVM) supervised classication procedure for satellite imagery feature detection and extraction is illustrated. In Section 4, QGIS based semiautomatic procedure for large
dataset processing is demonstrated. Finally, in Section 5, a method to enrich
attributes from raster layers, vector layers, and MS Excel les is introduced.

High Resolution Satellite Images Acquisition from

Google Maps

Google Maps is a web mapping service application and technology provided by

Google. Google Maps powers in many map-based services, including the Google
Maps website, Maps for mobile, and maps embedded on third party website by
using Google Maps API.
Higher resolution images are used for more interesting locations and more
populated places, such as urban areas. And rural areas tend to have less detail
available in the imagery. The best resolution is less than 60cm per pixel and the
worst is about 450cm per pixel.
Google Earth and Google Maps share the same satellite image database. The
satellite images are not updated in real time, but rather they are several months
or years old. From our experience, images of some areas may be updated more
Google allows the use of satellite images for non-commercial, non-violent, noninvasive purposes only. Google obscures sensitive or private information and will
not allow any commercial use of their images.
Google satellite images are accessible by both API and Internet browsers.
Method of acquiring satellite imagery form Google Maps with Firefox and its
add-on screen grab tool is published on website of DetailDesignOnline1 [3].
For a following process of urban disaster risk assessment, satellite images need
to be geo-referenced. In our example, QGIS (Quantum GIS) as a free and opensource GIS is employed for this task.
To geo-reference satellite images, normally at least three Ground Control
Points (GCPs) are needed. While in our case there is not such existing (known)

DetailDesignOnline website:

Free Geoinformatics Production for Urban Disaster Risk Reduction


GCP on the satellite images which were captured from Internet browsers. The
only (geo-coordinate) known point of each image is its central point, which can
also be used for geo-reference processing by QGIS with its OpenLayers Plugin.
See Figure 1.

Fig. 1. Image Geo-referencing in QGIS

Feature Detection and Extraction

To protect both public and private properties, geo-informatics of houses, buildings, streets, vegetation and other land covers are required for vulnerability
measurements and risk modelling. The high resolution Google satellite images
acquired by the above method could not directly provide such information.
For free and open-source geo-software solution consideration, Orfeo Toolbox
is used for this task. OTB is a library for (both optical and radar) remote sensing


Z. Zou and X. Lin

image processing, which is implemented in C++ and based on ITK 2 . The OTB
project was initiated by CNES (French Space Agency) in 2006 and is under
heavy developments and the participation from the open source community.
The library was originally targeted at high resolution images acquired by the
Orfeo Constellation. OTB provides image access, data access, ltering, feature
extraction, image segmentation, classication, change detection, map projections, radiometric indices, principal component analysis computation, exible
visualization, and more functionality is under development[4].
Besides the OTB development team, great contribution was from its user
group who aimed at improving OTB algorithms for more exible use in the real
world [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10].
Because of its advantages of ecient performance, free license, and opensource, OTB is utilized globally for multiple purposes of research, teaching, and
even commercial usages. On disaster risk and relative researches, OTB has been
broadly used in change detection [11] , object counting [7], building detection for
disaster response [12], road extraction [13], urban area detection [14], and urban
critical infrastructure protection [15].


Segmentation produces homogeneous clusters or objects each of which is associated with additional attributes such as mean, variance, shape index, textural
measures, etc. depending on the segmentation methods. Aim of segmentation is
to lower the complexity of the input data and increase accuracy of classication.
The level of details of details available in high resolution images can have a
strong negative eect at some stages of the processing. For instance roof superstructures are irrelevant when trying to extract the whole building.
The mean-shift algorithm provides an ecient way to simplify such images
[?]. In addition, mean Shift segmentation also helps to open the original image
into a multi-scale space to allow the incorporation of scale into classication [16].
In our example, Monteverdi (GUI version OTB) is employed for mean-shift
segmentation. A demonstration example of OTB mean-shift segmentation is
shown as Figure 2(with parameters settings: spatial radius is 30, spectral value
is 45.5, and minimum region size is 100).

Pixel-Based Processing and Object-Based Detection

There are two main methods to achieve feature extraction from remote sensed
imagery: pixel-based processing and object-based detection [12].
Pixel-based processing is a procedure analyses the spectral properties of every
pixel or picture element within the area of interest [17]. Pixel-based analysis was
originally designed for use with coarse resolution imagery.
Problems and limitations of using pixel-based procedure on Very High Resolution (VHR) imagery analyzing were pointed out [18]. Pixel-based methodology

ITK (Insight Toolkit):

Free Geoinformatics Production for Urban Disaster Risk Reduction


Fig. 2. OTB mean-shift segmentation and edge extraction

cannot set a minimum mapping unit, resulting in an over-classication of individual pixels. Advantage of this method is straightforward and fast, which is
much suitable for comparison of a pair images of pre- and post- disaster.
Object-based detection is a method to analysis spectral, spatial, and contextual properties of pixels. It uses a segmentation process and iterative learning
algorithm to achieve a semi-automatic classication procedure.
OTB object detection is a supervised object detection chain adapted to limited
extent object with strong shape features, such as planes, boats, roundabouts,
and xed-shape buildings. OTB object detection applications are not published
in its latest version 3.16, while the illustration of this method was shared on
international conference of IGRASS 2011 [19].
In our example, pixel-based detection method is used for classication task. In
Canberra many roofs are covered or shadowed by trees leaves. Houses with shadows on roofs are near to plants, which are regarded fuel in bushre. Such houses
are in higher physical vulnerability ranks. Roof shapes of those exposed parts
are irregular. And object-based detection method is not suitable for irregular
shape detection.


Z. Zou and X. Lin

Although pixel-based detection has limitation in VHR images processing; such

as errors appear when roofs are in same colour with ground surface. Most of those
errors can be corrected in the following geo-analysis and geo-processing.

Support Vector Machines (SVM) Classification

In OTB statistical classication, each object is represented by d features, and the

goal of classication becomes nding compact and decision regions for classes
in a d-dimensional feature space. Such decision regions are dened by decision
rules that are known or can be trained with a priori knowledge [4].
OTB SVM classication provides a supervised pixel-based classication chain
based on learning from multiple images. It supports large images through streaming and multi-threading [20]. The classication chain performs a SVM training
steps based on the intensities of each pixel. Standard OTB SVM classication
chain concludes steps: (1) images statistics estimation; (2) building up training
dataset; (3) training SVM model; and (4) SVM classication.
Comparison of the original satellite image, SVM labelled result, and colour
mapped SVM classication image are shown as Figure 3. In colour mapped
result image, red colour represents roofs, green represents vegetations, yellow
represents land, and blue represents road.

Fig. 3. Comparison of original satellite image, SVM labelled result, and colour mapped

Limited by the original data sources and acquisition method, elevation of

buildings and houses cannot be extracted from the captured Google satellite imagery. Elevation also cannot be estimated by produced geo-informatics. Although
it was pointed out building elevation can be estimated by its shadow length, we
found it is hardly to measure shadows length. Because trees and houses are too
adjacent to each other, their shadows are either mixed together or projected
on the walls. It is impossible to use shadow length for elevation estimation in
this condition. Individual building height can be probably estimated by Google
Building Maker and Google SketchUp, while for massive geo-data producing it
is dicult to get elevation information of all buildings.

Free Geoinformatics Production for Urban Disaster Risk Reduction


Semiautomatic Procedure for Large Dataset

According to our experience, it has been proofed there are two ecient methods
for large dataset processing automatically or semi-automatically.
Automatic method is to use OTB-wrapping and bind it with other languages.
OTB is an open-source library compiled by C language. Its source code is free
to download and use at OTB website.
By binding with other languages, almost all OTB applications are available
and can be used exible according to users purposes.
Semiautomatic method is to use OTB applications on QGIS platform with
spatial analysis plugin Sextante. Actually, Sextante supports more external applications than OTB algorithms, such as GRASS, SAGA, PostGIS, and LIDAR
images processing functionalities. And it supports Python scripts and R scripts
running as exibility for users own algorithms applications.
Conveniently Sextante has a graphic modeller tool, which allows user generate
models as processing procedures with combining algorithms, scripts, and models.
Sextante is suitable for large dataset processing because all of its algorithms and
models can be execute as batch process.
In our example, we devide the 800 pieces of images into 20 groups (begin with
the same letter). Each group has 40 images. A designed Sextante model runs 20
times in batch execution would nish all processing.
Three modules are designed by Sextante graphic modeller, and named as
Module I, II, and III. Module I is designed with functionality of images SVM
classication and polygonization. Module II is to set attribute values to extracted
features from Module II, such as acreage and area, boundary perimeters, and
geometry coordinate. Module III is for features extraction and errors correction.
Structures and functionalities of these three modules are shown as Figure 4,
Figure 5, and Figure 6 separately.

Attributes Enrichment

Necessary attributes of features relative to location information and disaster

characters need to be endowed for further calculation and computation. By merging with other geographic and demographic information on QGIS the produced
geo-informatics can be enriched in attributes.

Attributes Enrichment from Raster Layers

Extracted features attributes can be enriched with information carried by all

raster les. As an example,90 m Digital Elevation Model (DEM) raster layer is
combined to attribute tables by a core QGIS plugin tool called Zonal Statistics,
as shown in Figure 7.
To assign correct elevation value to each feature, the DEM raster and produced vector must be in the same CRS. Zonal Statistics has only few xed
statistics computation, as count, sum, and mean. More statistics complex calculation can be performed by Grid Statistics from SAGA GIS. It is also accessible
from Sextante toolbox.


Z. Zou and X. Lin

Fig. 4. Structure and functionality of Module I

Fig. 5. Structure and functionality of Module II


Enrichment from Vector Layers

Attributes can also be enriched from all vector layers, which contain a lot of
useful information can be used to enrich the produced geo-data. QGIS plugin
Join Attributes by Location combines attributes of two vector layers according

Free Geoinformatics Production for Urban Disaster Risk Reduction


Fig. 6. Functionalities of Module III (roofs layer example)

to their locations. By joining a point layer into a polygon layer, the attributes
combined together where their representative features are at the same location.
See Figure 8.

Combining with Excel Tables

The produced vector layers can also be enriched by combining with Microsoft
Excel le (or other formats can be convert into Excel les), which must have
columns of x and y coordinate. To read and write Excel tables, python libraries
of python-xlrd and python-xlwt are necessary. A QGIS plugin named x-y tool
can convert Excel tables and x-y point layers by import and export functions.
By x-y tool a Excel le is accessible to convert to a point layer in QGIS.
Attributes of the produced geo-informatics can be enriched from multiple
sources of data, by converting them into raster layers, vector layers, and Excel les. More comprehensive, attributes of produced geo-informatics can be
enriched from all tables by language R with spatial analysis packages.


Z. Zou and X. Lin

Fig. 7. Acquiring elevation values form DEM raster layer

Fig. 8. Attributes combination from vector layers at the same location


Experience and approaches of a zero cost solution for semiautomatic

geo-informatics production is introduced based on a research project of urban
natural disaster risk assessment and vulnerability mapping. As raw material to
produce geo-data, timely high resolution satellite images can be acquired from
Google Maps and Google Earth by several approaches. In this paper a Internet
browser based acquisition method is introduced. Orfeo Toolbox as a free and

Free Geoinformatics Production for Urban Disaster Risk Reduction


open-source library for remote sensing task is handy and helpful for satellite
imagery analysis and features extraction. OTB pixel based SVM classication
is employed for satellite image analysis and feature extraction where would be
used for urban disaster risk assessment in our project as illustrated in paper.
Fundamental and necessary attributes of the produced geo-data can be enriched
from other data source by QGIS. Although there are limited comparable features
to the commercial resources, free geo-data and open-source geo-software can be
developed to meet multiple demands with large exibility.
Acknowledgments. The research of Urban Natural Disasters Risk Assessment
and Community Vulnerability Measurement Mapping is supported by both Chinese Scholarship Council and Australian Commonwealth Scientic and Industrial
Research Organisation (CSIRO). The authors thank to Dr. Warren Jin (CSIRO,
Division of Computational Informatics) for his administration of QGIS on a super computer, which was used to produce the geo-informatics introduced in this

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