Landslide Mitigation & Prediction

This student project emerged out of a Carnegie Mellon University policy innovation lab, to work on smart city challenges. It is a data-collection project implemented using remote-sensing technology in order to advise policymakers on how to reduce landslide risk in the township of North Huntingdon, PA.

Project: Landslide Mitigation Project

Project Team: Sean Cuff, Sean Hoover, Woojin Park, Arun Sharma 

Class: Policy Innovation Lab at Carnegie Mellon University

Context: A project that began in an interdisciplinary 2019 CMU class, that had a theme around smart cities and partnerships with local community stakeholders

Table Of Contents

Executive Summary

The Landslide Mitigation Project is a data-collection project implemented using remote-sensing technology in order to advise policymakers on how to reduce landslide risk in the township of North Huntingdon, PA.

The project was founded by students enrolled in the Carnegie Mellon interdisciplinary Policy Innovation Lab class, focused on the theme of Smart Cities, where students from across different schools partnered with community stakeholders to solve problems in the public interest.


1. The Team & the Problem

Problem Identified: There is a lack of landslide-tracking infrastructure in use, as well as very minimal landslide mitigation plans.

Graduate students in Carnegie Mellon’s Policy Innovation Lab class, led by Prof. Chris Goranson, were encouraged to work with policymaking partners who came to the class with specific problems in mind relating to improving the lives of people in their respective municipalities.

Students were asked to rank community partners and their respective issues that they would address at the beginning of the class, and teams were made by pairing community partners with students that ranked them the highest, as well as by considering skill-set compatibility needed to address the stakeholder’s problem. Thus, these four students were paired with a group from North Huntingdon township, outside of Pittsburgh. They formed a team to address the township’s concern regarding precipitation-induced landslide risk. 

The Landslide Mitigation team consisted of graduate students studying Public Policy, Data Analytics, Management, and Business Intelligence, which provided an interdisciplinary skill set for the team to leverage. Moreover, several of the team members involved were actively taking a geographic information system (GIS) mapping course at the time, which assisted team members in deciding to focus on remote-sensing technology as a potential solution to the growing landslide problem that North Huntingdon township was facing.

Research Question Identified:

How might we help create a data-collection plan that can be adopted by North Huntingdon township to track high-risk landslide areas and mitigate the risk associated with landslides in the region? 


3. Proposed Solution, Testing, and Pilot

The Landslide Mitigation team sought a holistic two-fold approach to mitigating landslide risk: firstly, they focused on recommendations for data collection, analysis and sharing, and secondly, they highlighted policy interventions that would be effective in protecting people and assets from landslide damage. 

A. Data-Based Approach

For the data-based facet of the solution, they firstly outlined a two-prong approach of data collection and data sharing. To facilitate data collection, they suggested that North Huntingdon Township “leverage creative data collection opportunities, such as citizen crowdsourcing, or data mining with geological inspection”. Moreover, they suggested that the township take advantage of groundwork already completed by other groups involved in mapping, such as the Southern Pennsylvania Commission. Lastly, they suggested that the government could pursue and publish harder-to-find data that would be extremely helpful in landslide tracking, through the use of remote sensing technologies (eg. SAR and LiDAR) for example.  

In order to facilitate information dissemination of useful geographical data, the team suggested that the Township adopt open data principles for data collection and partner with the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center to implement an Open Data Hub. The Open Data Hub would be an all-in-one data orchestration solution that would act as an open repository of North Huntingdon Township’s geological data that could be useful for landslide risk modeling. Then, the Township could invite the public, researchers, and students to use the North Huntingdon Township data catalog, found within the open data hub, to find creative solutions.

This solution was inspired by the team’s discussions with Christoph Mertz, who is working with Roadbotics to tune their imaging algorithms to map treelines and observe changes over time, as well as by NASA’s mainstreaming capabilities to produce hyper-detailed topographical change maps.

A diagram outlining how a data hub could collect information from different information silos and share it with future contributors that could develop innovations from this data.

B. Policy-Based Approach

The Landslide Mitigation Team suggested three possible routes that North Huntingdon Township could pursue in the long-term. These measures were preventative, focusing on delineating areas that are considerably higher at risk for landslides and limiting the development of new construction in these high-risk areas.

Firstly, the team recognized the importance of landslide risk modeling to find and categorize these high-risk areas so they suggested that the Township develop a Standard of Service taxonomy that would assign maintenance interventions to each classification of landslide risk, based on the existing Allegheny County Landslide Portal Intervention Recommendations. They also encouraged the Township to increase site inspection standards in order to gather more precise data from engineering firms conducting site inspection prior to building on steep slopes; these suggestions include requiring minimum liability insurance and specifying an engineering firm portfolio/experience requirement for inspectors. These standards could then be documented and shared with a new coalition of townships working together in a newly-formed  Landslide Advisory Group so that learnings and data could be shared, resources could be pooled, and duplicate work could be avoided.

An example of a Standard-of-Service construction intervention plan for a typical rock slope affected by landslide damage (from Allegheny County).

Using the aforementioned data and taxonomies, the Landslide Mitigation Team decided to focus on restricting construction-induced landslide risk. In particular, they suggested the development of more specific Subdivision and Land Development Ordinances (SALDOs) targeting high-risk areas for landslides. They suggested that the Township categorize slopes in terms of degree of severity (eg. moderately steep, very steep, and prohibitively steep) and limit the disturbance area for areas with steep slopes. Moreover, SALDOs would outline a Storm Management Plan that would outline restrictions on building during high-precipitation periods and also limit the creation of new building projects that would steepen existing slopes in order to be mindful of long-term landslide risk prevention. In this way, fewer large-scale construction projects could be planned for high-risk areas with steeper slopes, and fewer steeper slopes would be created, which in turn could minimize landslide risk for the region in question.

A mock-up of compliances for steeper slopes that could be outlined in a SALDO. 

4. Reflections and Best Practices

Now that the project has been handed off to North Huntingdon County, the team has some insights for future students and teams working in a similar type of public interest technology development class.

Insight 1: Keep an open, shared stream of information with your community partner.

During the process of meeting with new stakeholders and experts in the mapping technology field, the team took notes which they stored online in a shared Google Drive, which was also shared during the process with North Huntingdon Township. With regards to final deliverables, the team “had transparency in sharing [information]…we packaged a few things in our specific folders and did a digital pass-off primarily through Google Drive and presented our findings to the decision makes in North Huntingdon.” However, they suggested that the open stream of communication of new learnings was valuable even beyond the basic deliverables because it allowed the community partner to understand where the team was during the idea development process and provide feedback during, rather than merely after, the development of the final deliverable. 

Insight 2: Focus on a solution that will be immediately valuable for your community partner despite having a personal affinity for a specific vision.

The Landslide Mitigation team discussed how they were focused “first and foremost on being committed to the feasibility and usability of what [they] created”. After each week of discussing possible pathways with stakeholders, they documented all their potential next steps and aimed to decide as a team what would be most immediately valuable in doing to advance North Huntingdon’s goals. The team mentioned that they sometimes “had to set aside any personal hierarchies [they] were creating and just really put the information that would answer each question best and be most useful for North Huntingdon”. 

Insight 3: Aim to engage team members in a meaningful way despite differences between each member’s skill set, goals, and visions for the project.

Each team member on the Landslide Mitigation Team came from a different educational background and thus had different personal learning goals. The team mentioned that “being committed to the value proposition but not necessarily your own goals most of the time is crucial” to provide value for the community partner, but that “trying to find time in that value creation to create value for you as a student is also critical”. The team aimed to do this by having open conversations at the end of each week regarding which tasks each team member wanted to tackle and delegating in a consensus-based fashion, while also respecting the mutual goal of assisting North Huntingdon as effectively as possible.

Insight 4: Focus on a solution that will be immediately valuable for your community partner despite having a personal affinity for a specific vision.

The Landslide Mitigation team discussed how they were focused “first and foremost on being committed to the feasibility and usability of what [they] created”. After each week of discussing possible pathways with stakeholders, they documented all their potential next steps and aimed to decide as a team what would be most immediately valuable in doing to advance North Huntingdon’s goals. The team mentioned that they sometimes “had to set aside any personal hierarchies [they] were creating and just really put the information that would answer each question best and be most useful for North Huntingdon”. 

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