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Friday, October 12, 2012

The Rise and Fall of Bushfire Connect


This week, Bushfire Connect closed up shop, after more than two years collecting and sharing Australian bushfire information and alerts with local communities.


The official statement is here. In this post, I’m sharing some personal views and experiences.

How it started
During my exploration of the application of Social Media in Emergency Management in 2009 (in a project called “Emergency 2.0 Australia”), I came into contact with Patrick Meier, one of the driving forces behind Ushahidi, the world's leading emergency management crowdsourcing platform. In May 2010 Patrick introduced me to Melbourne’s Keren Flavell, who was looking for the right technology platform to develop a community crowdsourcing and alerting system for the regions devastated by the 2009 Black Saturday fires.


The rest, as they say, is history.  


The first volunteers came on board, building a prototype during Sydney’s Random Hacks of Kindness event in June 2010, and by early 2011, we had a ‘live’ site, with a small army of volunteer moderators monitoring social media, and reviewing community reports submitted directly to our service. We had our baptism of fire (so to speak) in the February 2011 Roleystone-Kelmscott fire in Western Australia, which was the first time we had round-the-clock volunteer moderators operating in 3 timezones.


Uniqueness
Bushfire Connect was unique in that it combines several information channels: collecting crowd-sourced fire information through SMS and Twitter, which is then moderated and mapped, and subsequently sent out as alerts (via email or SMS) to whoever has signed up with the service. It was free, and the moderation filters out ‘noise’ and makes the alerts relevant and reliable.

What I’ve learned
The contribution and commitment put in by our volunteers has been fantastic and humbling. Yet for Bushfire Connect to be successful, we needed to do two things:  set-up and run a service that was continually active throughout the fire season and generate revenue. T
he cash outlays are small, but not insignificant. To provide a national, 24/7 service in times of crises, the project required at least a small team of (near) full time staff, which was not sustainable one a purely volunteer basis. We tried unsuccessfully for sponsorship, and were knocked back twice in subsequent years for Victorian Government grant funding

Similar Ushahidi-based deployments that have been highly successful have all been ‘quick-up’ – ‘quick-down’ initiatives that reacted to unforeseen emergencies such as the Haiti Earthquake or the Japanese Tsunami. Especially since the establishment of the world-wide ‘Stand-by-Taskforce’, these can be very quickly ramped up and continue for a limited period, based on volunteer effort only. In the Australian context, with a recurring, relatively predictable, fire season, Bushfire Connect needed to run a marathon, rather than a sprint.


Alternatives
Since we started Bushfire Connect, a number of similar and related initiatives have sprung up around the country. I’d like to think that we have in some modest way contributed to this groundswell. 


As far as I know, Sirenus is the only other long-term Ushahidi deployment, with very similar features to BushfireConnect. But it’s unclear if it ever got off the ground.


Ripe Intelligence is a very good site from Victoria, which combines and maps emergency reports from a range of sources, and has some crowdsourcing ability, but doesn’t send out individual alerts (yet?)


If you’re interested in receiving personalised, geolocated alerts, you can sign-up with Incident Alert (if you’re in Victoria or South Australia), or the Early Warning Network. As far as I can see these services currently don’t use crowdsourced information sources.

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