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Expanding the use of fire sensors for detecting heat waves in informal settlements

The goal is to define a novel use of fire sensors to better prepare informal settlements for heat waves.

Photo of Julie Arrighi
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EXPLAIN YOUR IDEA

This project idea is to expand research into urban heat wave risks for informal settlements in Nairobi through a partnership between the Kenya Red Cross, American Red Cross, UNICEF, Virginia Tech, John Hopkins University, Halo Smart Labs and the Climate Centre. Research into the relationship between heat and health risks in Nairobi, and East Africa, is in its infancy. Further research is needed to identify thresholds of heat concern, as well as vulnerability patterns such as the impacts of heat stress on women and children.

With the findings of this research the team will begin the design of a warning system for reducing heat wave impacts on the most vulnerable, and will seek assistance from IDEO in using a human centered design approach to achieve this goal. Initial ideas for this system include the use of Rapid-Pro, a two-way SMS system designed by UNICEF, to strengthen two way communication between response actors and Nairobi’s residents during heat waves. In addition, Red Cross volunteers could be mobilized to spread life saving messages at the community level or to encourage neighbors to check on each other during times of heightened heat stress.

This is building on the Fire Sensors for Safer Urban Communities project where low-cost, networked fire sensors are being developed and installed Mukuru, Nairobi. These sensors, which detect smoke and heat, also provide a potential opportunity to monitor and warn about urban heat waves.

WHO BENEFITS?

This project will focus on residents of Nairobi’s informal settlements, especially the most vulnerable such as the elderly, pregnant women and children. This research will help to design a human centered warning system for reducing health related impacts of heat waves.

Kenya Red Cross will work with the National Disaster Operations Center and other response actors to strengthen response to heat related risks in Nairobi. This process will be documented for replication in East Africa.

HOW DOES YOUR IDEA TAKE INTO ACCOUNT THE CONTEXT OF URBAN SLUMS AND CLIMATE CHANGE?

According to the 2014 UNHABITAT, State of African Cities Report, East Africa is the worlds fastest urbanizing sub-region with it’s urban population projected to increase by five fold between 2010 and 2040, leading to a rapid increase in slums and informal settlements. Furthermore, Africa is the fastest urbanizing continent with the majority of growth taking place in the tropics. In parallel to this, there are rising risks from heat waves under a changing climate. The IPCC clearly documents this rise in heat wave risks by stating that: “It is very likely that the length, frequency, and/or intensity of warm spells or heat waves will increase over most land areas” They further state that the impacts of heat waves can vary based on the underlying vulnerability of various populations.

Despite these understandings, research to connect the two – heat wave risks and urban growth in Africa is limited. Gaps in understanding include the impact that informal settlements have on ambient temperature—i.e., the creation of localized urban heat islands with limited air flow and elevated temperatures—and on behavioral components of exposure—e.g., differences between indoor and outdoor temperature and the time actually spent in each environment. This limited understanding results in limited ability to take concrete action to reduce the impacts of such risks on the most vulnerable.

Our project incorporates several Urban Resilience Challenge design principles, particularly 1 (Plan for the ordinary, not just the extraordinary), and 4 (Maximize limited resources).

IN-COUNTRY EXPERIENCE

  • Yes, for two or more years

EXPERTISE

  • I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for at least two years

GEOGRAPHIC FOCUS

  • Yes

TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF

This idea is submitted by a team of individuals from the Kenya Red Cross, American Red Cross, UNICEF, Virginia Tech, John Hopkins University, Halo Smart Labs and the Climate Centre. Collectively they have extensive experience working in Kenya, climate risk management and smart home sensors.

IS THIS A NEW OR RECENT IDEA FOR YOU OR YOUR ORGANIZATION? HOW DOES IT DIFFER FROM WHAT YOU ARE ALREADY DOING?

This idea of developing a heat wave early warning system through the installation of low-cost heat sensors in informal settlements is new for the Red Cross and many of the partners in this proposal. The idea developed, in part, from the Fire Sensors for Safer Urban Communities project which aims to develop low-cost networked fire sensors for informal settlements to reduce the impact of fire outbreaks through improved response. (http://www.tech4resilience.org/fire-sensors.html)
This idea is further influenced by a heat-monitoring network that has been deployed in US cities by some team members. To our knowledge, this new system would be the first high density heat monitoring network for informal settlements deployed anywhere in the developing world. Furthermore, this idea is novel because extreme heat exposure is measured within living areas instead of at the nearest weather station (typically at an airport), taking into account expected differences arising from informal settlements.

HOW IS YOUR IDEA DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SIMILAR INITIATIVES? WHAT ARE YOU DOING DIFFERENTLY? WHAT UNIQUE ADVANTAGES DO YOU HAVE?

On the technical side this heat monitoring network will make use of low cost heat sensors, designed to be low profile, robust, and inexpensive. This provides a significant advantage over traditional weather monitoring equipment, which tends to be too expensive and often too large to install at high density in informal urban settlements. The high density aspect of this system will also help to expand the understanding of nuances in warning on urban heat wave risks in informal settlements.

The Kenya Red Cross will ensure this system is designed in close collaboration with community residents. Strong community involvement will allow for more subtle health impacts associated with heat exposures in informal settlements to be delineated. This will be unique from previous initiatives that have been dependent on centralized death or hospital records.

The Red Cross will also ensure that community residents are central to the ultimate heat wave warning system. Red Cross volunteers from targeted communities will be recruited and trained to spread life saving messages and provide necessary care and support to the most vulnerable during times of heightened heat stress.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR IDEA?

The magnitude and scale of temperature variability in informal urban settlements has never been characterized. We don’t know the extent to which extreme high temperatures differ within these settlements or between the settlements and the surrounding urban matrix. Furthermore heat-related health outcomes unique to an informal settlement are unknown. For example, social connectivity, water availability/use, and methods of cooking are all potential modifiers of heat-related health outcomes. All of these can have an impact on the ultimate community driven warning system that is designed. Finally the existing sensors have not been tested to accurately alarm in a heat wave scenario.

WHY DO YOU THINK THE PROBLEM YOUR IDEA SOLVES FOR HASN'T BEEN SOLVED YET?

Low cost, compact temperature monitoring technology is new for any city. In addition, the health impacts of heat waves in the tropics have only begun to be appreciated in recent years. Many heat-related health impacts also go unnoticed and undiagnosed since heat stress tends to exacerbate numerous acute or chronic conditions. Heat exposure is often hard to control in household and outdoor settings, therefore the health community has struggled with coming up with effective preventive measures. To create a significant impact at scale, it is necessary to better understand these nuances in urban heat wave risk and develop a warning system that is integrated into existing governance systems.

HOW HAS YOUR IDEA CHANGED BASED ON FEEDBACK FROM YOUR COMMUNITY?

Some considerations and questions raised in regard to this system relate to the overall scalability and sustainability of the system in the post-testing phase at the community level. Further exploration is also needed into how this heat wave warning system system will sustainably integrate into other city systems, especially where clear mandate to act on heat wave warnings is unclear and past experience in managing heat wave warnings is rare, if not nonexistent. Furthermore, it will require further consultation to determine how individuals will react to a heat wave warning at the community level, given that heat wave warnings are extremely rare. Many of these questions relate to similar questions raised under the Fire Sensors for Safer Urban Communities project referenced above. Further consultation is still needed.

WHAT WOULD YOU ULTIMATELY LIKE TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS IDEA? WHAT IS YOUR NEXT STEP TO GET THERE?

We want to understand how extreme heat varies across the city, what this means for exposure and health outcomes in vulnerable populations, and how the urban landscape influences the distribution of heat risks. This can inform targeted heat wave preparedness and response and, ultimately, can inform urban design strategies in a warming climate. From a technical climate perspective, the next key step is to characterize heat distribution and identify drivers of localized heat islands (e.g., building materials, street width) that can be used to generalize findings from this project. This would be followed by the design of a heat wave warning solution that is linked to existing city systems.

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Team

Julie and team, great updates on this initiative! We thought you might like to reach out and collaborate with these like-minded ideas that are also in the Improve Phase. We'd love for you collaboratively strengthen your ideas together. 

Community-led participatory disaster management system to reduce risk of fire hazard: https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/urban-resilience/ideas/community-led-participatory-disaster-management-system-to-reduce-risk-of-fire-hazard-in-urban-slums-of-bangladesh

#KeepCool: https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/urban-resilience/ideas/mapping-and-managing-heat-stress-in-urban-slum-communities

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