Rays of light shining through eucalypt forest after bushfire
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By Kate Crawford, Paul Reed and Roshni Sharma, Locate20 Organising Committee

Communication is vital to keep communities affected by bushfires proactive, resilient and prepared. 

The 2019/20 bushfire disasters have heightened public awareness of the need to improve communication within communities and with officials about danger and to locate resources in chaotic conditions when normal services are not available or visibility is low. 

People tend to feel very helpless when they don’t know what’s going on, whether they are firefighting personnel, isolated local residents, visitors or concerned friends and relatives. Recent discussions on social media have already suggested the benefit of mapping and communicating up-to-date information about the exact location, and intensity of fire outbreaks, location of food supplies, other support services.

The geospatial technologies offer a range of solutions which could make a significant difference in empowering people when natural disasters strike.

NASA thermal imaging of bushfires

NASA thermal imaging of 2019/20 Australian bushfires

Communications, Mapping and Social Media

Mobile phones have been used extensively, this Summer, in communities, and by officials, to coordinate residential firefighting and evacuation efforts. Smartphones are dominant, emergency alerts to mobiles are common and effective due to Significantly improved 3G/4G penetration to regional areas.

Developments are also widely discussed on social media to coordinate community self-help. In this situation communication of satellite imagery of the bigger picture on social media has also enabled people to better understand the global impact of such locally experienced disasters and the wider responsibility for managing our shared environmental resources. 

The extended use of interactive communications between community members and professionals has had a positive effect in the analysis of the immediate risks. It has also increased public awareness of possible improvements.

One example, widely discussed, is the urgent need, for telecommunications network operators to alert everyone when communication networks or utilities for power and water are disrupted and to provide accurate mapped details of the area affected, to aid rapid response of alternative support systems.

Another is that scarce water supplies have been a growing challenge in most areas affected by fire. Melting of pipes and disruption of water supplies has been a challenge for firefighters and residents.

The value of community engagement in mapping and communication for recovery

These disasters have highlighted the value of a much broader community capability to use and contribute to location data and communications in planning, managing risk, disaster management and recovery. A coordinated accessible system of map making, strategic sensor use, and social media communication and alerts would be one way to adapt to the new weather conditions. 

If we can tap into the communities on-the-ground and help them to assist emergency services by providing spatial data to create a repository of local knowledge and information about what is where and in what condition, there are many positive implications for better emergency service results when there is heavy smoke, when power goes out, fuel is low and other such situations.

This will create a positive domino effect, assisting emergency services crews carrying out firefighting, repairs, and other assistance. People escaping fire-ravaged areas will be better able to understand where their most accessible evacuation centre is, where to obtain emergency food supplies, and the like – all traumatic activities which could be eased a little through using maps as a quick and easy communication tool. 

The spatial industry has helped in the 2019-2020 fires, Digital Earth Australia has provided a significant resource for preparedness and response. Digital Earth Australia Hotspots displays bushfires around Australia as hotspots updated daily, pinpointing bushfires to an accuracy of 1.5km across the nation

Using satellite imagery such as this to feed into photogrammetry has allowed for faster and more accurate burn scar analysis, which is used to keep the public informed of the management of bushfires in apps such as the RFS “Fires Near Me’ and the SPARK application also (CSIRO, 2015). It uses geospatial data of vegetation, topography and unburnable elements such as infrastructure alongside weather data to model bushfire behaviour. 

Social media has the power to connect people to each other, exchange up to date information, to share how a situation is evolving in real time, to hear about the national, or global impact of changes and to make informed decisions. Agencies routinely monitor social media for crowdsourced information for disaster management. New thermal imaging and sensor data make it possible to extend our understanding in real time.  

We have learned that spatial solutions to disaster management are about prevention, preparation and recovery as well as response. To be effective, spatial solutions need to be sustainable in the long-term, and used to expand on available tools, skills, services, R&D and technology and to engage everyone in the response and recovery.

Spatial solutions that use crowdsourced data, should work alongside existing command and control structures to enhance their effectiveness and value and respect the need for local informed decision making when limited rescue or service resources are not available   

Some emerging examples already making a difference or in planning are:

  • A National Parks and Wildlife Service program at Warrumbungle National Park has been helping fire recovery through citizen science projects where visitors to the park help to monitor wildlife and birds returning to the park through the BioCollect app 
  • A community based development as a Citizen Science platform NatureMapR, is already well established in the ACT and South Coast of NSW and coordinates a mix of organizational and crowd sourced data and knowledge via a phone app (five star rating) and website
  • The founders of BushfireConnect in Victoria  are currently working with the University of Melbourne and UNSW to understand the spatio-temporal aspect of bushfire communication, working to create a solution that will analyze social media across a number of platforms during times of crisis to understand how communication can be undertaken more effectively to create solutions for communities in these hard times
  • The Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute (SSSI) is organizing a National Bushfire Recovery Map-a-thon, to be held across Australia on Sunday 9 February 2020, using Open Street Map. You can participate at one of the face-to-face events or remotely from your home computer. To find out more, see the SSSI website or email to get involved

At Locate20 in Brisbane in April, we will be hearing from several speakers who will talk about new technology that is playing a role in better more integrated mapping systems. We will also hear from Mark Dunford who will be discussing information platforms and the impact they had during the 2019 bushfire season.

Engaging the community in recovery efforts and in better understanding ongoing risks, long-term impacts and how they can be proactively involved in recovery is important. Crowdsourcing data, including visualizations of spatial data, via Community Science platforms, offers a huge resource for both communities and utility management. 

To hear more about the above issues, and so much more, visit www.locateconference.com/2020. Early bird registration is still available but only for a limited time so get in quick! 

Locate20 Conference, 28-30 April 2020, BrisbaneThis partner content is brought to you by Locate20. The Locate Conference is a yearly event that brings industry sectors together to explore how geospatial and location technologies and practices are being used, highlighting the fundamental role they play in the building of our digital economy. The event will explore and facilitate the convergence of the spatial industry and the influence and importance of our industry to broader, non-traditional, industries and the Australian economy.

©2020 utilitymagazine. All rights reserved

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