Technology supports Brazil dam collapse management

Mobile operators provide data, Israel brings in advanced equipment and startups unite to deal with country's worse environmental tragedy.

s Technology is supporting Brazilian authorities in their search for survivors of the worst environmental disaster in the country's history.

Following the collapse of a dam operated by mining company Vale on Friday (25), hundreds of people including the firm's employees, contractors and local residents are unaccounted for and the death toll is nearing 60.

As one dam containing iron ore waste failed and another overflowed in the town of Brumadinho in the state of Minas Gerais, the government's Attorney General secured authorization for requests to mobile phone operators about devices located in the mine at the time the occurrence took place.

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Authorities could use the data to determine whether devices are active following the occurrence and also which communications tower sent the last signal to a phone. Search areas could then be narrowed down, increasing the chances of finding the device - and hopefully, its owner.

Operators Vivo, Tim, Claro, Oi, Nextel, Algar Telecom and Sercomtel will deliver the information directly to search teams, who could use the information to support the task of finding survivors in the mudslide. 

The court request for data is needed due to privacy rights ensured by the country's constitution. The request relates to clients located within a 20km (12.4mi) area around the Feijão mine during a 24-hour period starting January 24 at midnight.

In addition, Israel sent a 140-strong team of troops and aid workers to Brazil, who arrived last night (27)  along with about 16 tons of equipment to support the searches. This includes a sonar device used in Budapest by Israeli volunteer rescue and recovery group Zaka during the initial sweep of the riverbed in search of Holocaust remains, which may enable Brazilian teams to locate bodies that may be buried as far as 15m (49ft) down the mud.

Local technology companies, as well as international firms like Google, are also getting involved by offering their competencies to support the management of the tragedy. 

After filling out a form, individuals or companies participating in the Brumadinho Task Force group can join WhatsApp groups focused on separate areas ranging from monitoring of drones and balloons, data analytics and supercomputer resource use to health tech capabilities and project management skills to organize teams.

More than 300 people are missing following the dam burst and about 190 have been rescued alive at the time of writing. Searches are currently suspended since Vale warned another dam faced imminent risk of collapse. Vale is also linked to another deadly dam collapse in Minas Gerais, that took place less than four years ago.