From the expert: crowdsource your emergency data

By on 4 September, 2017

As NSW firefighters battle fresh blazes on the Kurnell Peninsula, a visiting US emergency response expert has called for crowdsourcing bushfire apps, which he says could save lives.

Esri Australia Global Public Safety Advisor Russ Johnson – who led recovery efforts after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010 – helps public safety agencies around the world to use technology during large-scale emergencies.

He said phone apps that facilitate greater public support and cooperation were a critical weapon in thwarting or mitigating bushfires.

“I’ve seen lives saved and bushfires prevented thanks to information provided by the community,” Johnson – the former San Bernardino Chief of Fire and Emergency Operations – said.

During a crisis, the public has critical information that can aid emergency response, such as where the fire is heading, where it has been, what has been damaged. This information can help emergency workers make decisions on evacuating communities and strategically positioning crews and managing resources, including evacuation centres.

Johnson noted the value of our digitally connected society. “Getting this information is a challenge, but with the prevalence of smartphones, virtually anyone is capable of submitting information and photos at a moment’s notice,” he said.

“We have apps to order pizzas and catch a cab – but virtually nothing to provide bushfire information that could save lives.”

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the second largest in history, and created a years-long crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.


During the Deepwater Horizon recovery operation, Johnson’s team used mapping technology to deliver real-time updates and undertake predictive modelling.

Following the disaster, he helped launch a series of public information maps that provided the community with tools to anticipate any adverse effects.

“People could add their own information to the maps, such as links to photos, websites, Tweets or YouTube videos,” Johnson said.

“This meant volunteers could contribute to the growing source of knowledge around the crisis and increase everyone’s awareness of activities related to the spill.”

He said there was emerging interest in the deployment of similar impact maps to convey key emergency information in extreme events, such as a terrorist attack.

“These smart maps can indicate affected areas, identify the population at risk, chart weather feeds and provide live updates from the ground through social media feeds,” Johnson said.

“Esri has worked with local authorities around the APAC region to deploy these kinds of public information maps for emergencies from the Japan Tsunami to the MH370 disaster.”

Johnson strongly advised the government to be proactive and prioritise the development of apps that allow the public to share valuable information with local authorities rather than waiting for a crisis to unfold. He will deliver a keynote speech on Tuesday (5/9/17) at the Australian Fire and Emergency Services Authority Council 2017 Conference (AFAC17), Australasia’s largest emergency management & public safety conference.

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