As the skies open up with heavy rain and the water rises dangerously behind the Nangbeto hydropower dam in rural Togo, local authorities face a tough decision: When do you raise a warning for the flood-prone villages below and approve funds to set up relief efforts? What if nothing happens and you’re accused of wasting money? Or if you’re not fast enough and people die?
A new virtual reality game created by the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre puts users in the shoes of decision makers, letting them decide whether or not to ring an alarm bell, stamp papers for aid delivery, and load supplies into a relief truck – all from a virtual hill overlooking the green valley and the surging waters of the dam.
Based on three years of real hydrological data from the tiny flood-prone West African nation, the experience aims to help users get a sense of how hard decision-making can be – and suggests how creating better prediction models and pre-authorising aid might save money, time and lives.
“It’s an unbeatable technology to convey complexity,” says Pablo Suarez, who leads innovation efforts at the climate centre, and whose team developed the game alongside technology company Visyon, and with the backing of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.
“A lot of what we do in humanitarian work depends on people deciding things they can’t experience,” he said. Technology like this can give them “emotional discovery – and intellectual insight”.
Users of the game, strapped into a virtual reality headset and earphones, and holding two wands that act as virtual hands, keep an anxious eye on the sometimes stormy skies and the surging and ebbing water levels behind the dam. When disaster looks likely, they reach out to ring a warning bell and stamp aid papers.
In some cases, a white box of relief supplies then appears and can be swiftly lifted into a truck for delivery to the flood-threatened – or perhaps by now already flooded – village below. But if authorities determine you’ve acted too rashly in raising the alarm, an official-sounding voice chides you for wasting money by approving aid unnecessarily.
“It’s more engaging than normal. You’re not listening to information but are actually engaged in it,” said Michele Leone of the Canada-backed International Development Research Centre, one of those who tried out the game this week at Development and Climate Days, on the sidelines of the U.N. climate negotiations in Morocco.
The game also points to a potential innovation in dealing with disaster risk: Using rainfall and flood records to build a computer programme that learns from past experience. Such a programme potentially could predict flooding more precisely than people, and could be set up to send out automatic flood warning alerts, for instance, when trigger points are passed, Suarez said.
That, combined with fast emergency funding decisions when triggers are met, could help speed aid to threatened communities before losses mount, and reduce frustrating hang-ups in response time.
The virtual reality game “can help create better understanding”, said Vinod Menon, a climate resilience specialist and founding member of India’s National Disaster Management Authority.
After using the virtual reality equipment, he said he’d like to see a similar simulation created for earthquake risk in Nepal – perhaps with users standing on a mechanical shake table to experience what might happen inside a building if different construction codes were adhered to.
Designers have already created other early virtual reality experiences for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre, including a simulation that asks users to draw out what they believe will be the extent of sea ice in the Arctic in coming years, and the expected rate of increase in climate-changing emissions.
Suarez believes that, as a way to engage people who need to learn, virtual reality is going to prove hard to beat. He points to a banner about the virtual reality experience, detailing the work of the project. Despite being set up near the line of people trying the virtual reality game, no one is looking at the text.
“Nobody’s reading that, even though it’s a good source of information,” he said – and that’s just the new reality.