Researchers compared before and after photos of buildings that were damaged in the 2011 Japanese tsunami

Google Street View to boost building safety after disasters

Google Street View could help civil engineers assess building damage after natural disasters in order to improve resistance to future events according to the University of Southampton.

A research team from the University studied images taken before and after the 2011 Japan earthquake to assess the impacts on buildings from the Tohoku tsunami, which hit the east coast of the country causing widespread damage.

Cars equipped with 360 degree cameras used to take Google Street View images were sent around major cities and coastal areas, photographing streets over a six-month period starting four months after the tsunami.

The images were collected with those taken before the tsunami to produce a digital archive that provided engineers with accessible comparisons of structures looked prior to the event and how they were affected by it.

The researchers used two Japanese cities, Ishinomaki, on a coastal plain, and Ofunato, on a coastline with steep coastal valleys.

Post-tsunami images were used to identify the material and form of structures that remained standing, which were logged by location and graded on a damage scale. Buildings were also assessed on their ability to serve as vertical evacuation centres for sheltering from future disasters.

Dr Alan Bloodworth, engineering lecturer at the University of Southampton and co-author of the study, said the team found that much of what is observable in the field was also visible in Google’s online archive and the comparison pictures taken later.

“The Google Street View cars created a new resource for remote assessment of structural performance, quantitatively by type and location and qualitatively for beneficial design features, such as sheltering by trees and other buildings,” he said.

“Although such online images cannot completely replace field surveys, they have the potential to exploit an untapped resource of researchers around the world, who can then collaborate with local engineers to learn lessons and improve tsunami resistance of vulnerable coastal communities.”

Jessica Miles, also co-author on the study and a University of Southampton graduate, believes the Tohoku tsunami highlighted the vulnerability of cities to natural disasters and the need to improve the survivability of buildings.

“Advances in technology have made remote data collection possible as an alternative to field investigations,” said Miles.

“The availability of readily comparable images can provide individual building performance assessment, but with much less use of resource and with the ability to make connections between different occurrences of particular successful structural forms.”

In April last year, Google added a time machine feature to Street View that allowed users to see how places have changed since the mapping service launched in 2007.

Earlier this year the search giant also launched emergency online tools to help people find their friends and relatives following the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal.

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