“One-in-100-year events happen all the time”

As recently as 2010, Bristol came tenth in the list of cities in England and Wales most at risk of flooding. Now it’s fifth, and the number of homes at risk has shot up from 12,800 to 29,000. But this has got nothing to do with any physical changes in the city itself – it’s solely down to how the risk is measured. The council has invested in an extremely detailed model of flood risk across the city, the first of its kind in the world. The results have not only challenged perceptions of Bristol’s own flood risk, but scientists’ understanding of flooding itself. Flood modelling is a highly specialised discipline combining environmental science, applied mathematics, hydrology, surveying and advanced IT, not a combination that usually captures the public imagination. But 2013 is likely to see a great deal more demand for accurate models, when a gentlemen’s agreement between insurers and the government expires – and the owners of 200,000 high-risk properties find their cover rockets in price or is withdrawn completely, rendering their homes worthless. For this article for Modus magazine, I spoke to the world’s leading flood risk engineers to find out how they do it, and what their latest discoveries could mean for us all.

Dark side of the cloud

Cloud computing is becoming a corporate no-brainer as a sustainable, energy efficient alternative to buying and managing your own servers and software. But is it actually any greener? Greenpeace says not – it points out that the extraordinary growth in the number of data centres means that even significant improvements in efficiency are dwarfed by the increase in total energy demand, and that if the cloud was a country, it would have the fifth largest electricity consumption in the world. But the crucial detail is the source of that electricity. Because data centre owners seek a cheap, constant power supply and have historically favoured locations – Virginia, North Carolina – where electricity is produced from coal, their carbon emissions can be enormous. The good news is that in a fiercely competitive market where all the main providers are building furiously, some have realised the marketing potential of locations like Iceland where the power grid is almost zero-carbon. By shopping carefully, companies can not only reduce their own carbon footprint, but everyone else’s as well. For this piece for the Sunday Telegraph’s Business Technology supplement, I investigated the hidden environmental cost of cloud computing, and the key questions to ask a potential supplier.

Like having a quantity surveyor in your pocket

If you don’t yet own a smartphone or you’ve never downloaded an “app”, you probably will soon. Last August, communications regulator Ofcom reported that 27% of adults had one, most acquired over the previous year. The most popular uses are email, internet surfing and social networking, but the latest devices are equipped with powerful digital cameras, presentation-quality graphics, GPS technology and laptop-sized memories, so the opportunities for anyone with the time and energy to think of an application and develop the code for it are endless. More than 500,000 people have already done exactly that. And some of them work in construction, judging by the growing number of apps that turn the industry’s mobile phones into handheld portfolios, technical cribsheets, drawing boards and decibel readers. For this piece in AIS Interiors Focus magazine, I tracked down the best and the most useful construction apps, including almost certainly the world’s first dedicated to quantity surveying – now downloaded more than 500 times in seven countries and earning rave, five-star reviews in Apple’s App Store.

Tricks of the light

Seeper has made castles disappear into thin air, created walls that ripple in time to music and frozen London’s Senate House into a solid block of ice. The work of this arts and technology collective is proof of one of founder Evan Grant’s favourite quotations: Arthur C Clarke’s assertion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. When I edited this lighting special for Icon magazine, I got him to explain exactly how they do it. Also included: interviews with designers Rolf Sachs, Thierry Dreyfus and Arik Levy, and a very power and plug-hungry photoshoot of some beautiful and intriguing new products.

How the world might not end

If you think green building is a niche topic, head down to Ecobuild. It’s not only one of the largest events in the UK, but the largest in the world focusing on sustainable construction and architecture. More than 50,000 people came to ExCeL in east London for Ecobuild 2011 – and when I was there, most of them were trying to fit into the conference hall where Brian Cox was speaking. But there were a great many other contributors over the three day programme, with a very diverse range of views and interests. I edited a blog on the Ecobuild site in the months leading up to the event, which meant I got to talk to them about all sorts of things including why climate talks fail, the truth about eco-cities in the desert and why Christmas houses might not be a total sustainability nightmare…

Cash in the basement

Insurance is not a sector that’s renowned for being at the bleeding edge of technology. But firms are waking up to the fact that all that data buried in dusty mainframes is one of the most valuable assets they own – if only they could work out what it’s telling them. In this tech feature for Insurance Times, I reviewed three software products developed to unlock the commerical potential of claims records.