I am currently in Tasmania for the last piece of fieldwork for my PhD research into volunteered geographic information (VGI), community engagement and bushfire preparation. VGI refers to the voluntary engagement of private citizens in the creation of geographic information, predominantly through sources such as social media, smartphones and inexpensive online mapping tools. VGI represents a shift in the ways geographic information is created, shared, used and experienced and this has important implications for various applications of geospatial data, including disaster management where the social practice of VGI is changing the traditional top-down structure of emergency management and information creation and dissemination.
In Tasmania I am running research workshops with the aim to explore how mapping and sharing local knowledge about bushfire with others in their community may foster community members’ engagement in disaster preparation. Key questions I am considering include:
1) Is the social practice of contributing and reviewing VGI engaging for bushfire preparation?
2) Is the local knowledge and understanding gained from the mapping valuable to communities?
3) Does the activity of mapping together increase community connectedness?
4) Is the map itself an effective medium for collating and sharing community bushfire information?
Workshops are being held in four communities, with the first occurring yesterday in Kettering, South West of Hobart. I will post about the other workshops after they happen, but the remainder of this post will focus on the Kettering workshop.
Approximately 20 people turned up to participate in the workshop, sought through engaging local community groups and community fire networks, flyers distributed on noticeboards in Kettering, and sharing through various social media pages, including the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) page. The workshop format included introductions and a short presentation about the research and the day’s activities, a paper mapping activity followed by lunch, and a digital mapping activity before participants completed a 15-minute questionnaire before the end of the workshop. My PhD supervisor Dr Eleanor Bruce from the University of Sydney and Lesley King from the Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods program at TFS assisted in running the workshop.
The paper mapping activity saw participants in groups of 4-5 marking up paper maps with any information they felt was relevant to bushfire preparation in their community. Groups were each given a satellite image, topographic map, community protection plan (an official fire service document that outlines ‘nearby safer places’ and other fire relevant information for that community), blank paper, plastic overlays, and a suite of textas, stickers and other stationary and told to map whatever and however they wanted using those resources.
I found it really interesting and kind of enjoyable to wander around observing and discussing with the groups the different things they were choosing to map and how different groups thought about the same places in different ways. They mapped a whole range of things, including (but not limited to) community assets like the local pub, regions of high fire danger, potential places of refuge, roads that would be inaccessible to fire trucks, their homes and where their neighbourhood
groups were located, what resources were available to help each other prepare, and communication towers. At the end of the exercise groups presented their maps and discussed what they had done with the rest of the participants.
Discussions revealed a number of benefits of the exercise. Some people learned new things about their community in relation to bushfire. Some thought working with others and the
discussions between community members the mapping generated was the most valuable aspect. Some downfalls of the activity that were raised included the difficulty in keeping a map up-to-date and sharing it with their broader community and the challenge of getting the information ‘out’ of the paper map so it can be used in other ways, e.g. for the fire service.
The second activity involved collating the information from each group into a combined web map (while it is a bit limited in functionality, we used the Zeemaps platform for its simplicity and accessibility). Initially I demonstrated the platform and then participants talked about what they wanted to add as a collective group. Participants were given a URL to the map and asked to contribute on their smartphones or tablets live in the workshop. Not many people took this up and instead preferred me to ‘drive’ the mapping. Some even seemed a little intimidated by the technology (this could be related to demographics – a large portion of the group were retirees. This probably also reflects the kind of people more interested in fire preparation, as well as those more likely to volunteer their time for a research workshop). This resulted in a slightly awkward lull in the activity with many people not having anything to do while others were adding their information to the web map – something to reconsider for the next workshops. However a useful discussion still ensued where a range of benefits and challenges were discussed. The web map was seen as better for zooming in and mapping finer detail information at ‘micro’ scales (e.g. who has a chainsaw on their street), for sharing the map more widely and easily, for maintaining the relevance of information, for the convenience of contributing when/wherever people liked, for the ability to include more detailed comments and photos with points, and for the potential for more to be done with the data (e.g. GIS analyses). Some issues raised included map ownership, privacy, computer illiteracy of some community members, and the potential ‘messiness’ of all the data points together.
While I haven’t analysed any results yet, a cursory look at the survey responses revealed most people saw a lot of potential and positive applications for community mapping to aid in bushfire preparation. In contrast to my observations during the activity, most people seemed to prefer and rated the computer mapping as more useful. They understood the experimental nature of the activity and recognised its limitations in the workshop setting but saw potential for web maps to be a highly valuable tool and resource in their community along the lines of the benefits described above. Overall people were genuinely interested and positive about the research and the potential outcomes. Considering this was the first time I had attended a research workshop of this nature, let alone designed, organised and ran it, I was really happy with how it went. I even got the catering pretty right! While a part of me is looking forward to my short career in event management being over in a few weeks, I’m interested to see how the next workshops in different communities compare. I’ll post an update when they’re done!