Geographic information and communication technologies for supporting smallholder agriculture. (#AGILE2018 conference poster)

Below is a poster I prepared on some work following my postdoc research in 2017, presenting lessons learned from review of information and communication technology initiatives for disseminating agricultural geographic information (AGI) direct to smallholder farmers, who increasingly face short and long term climate shocks and stresses. The poster was displayed at the 21st AGILE conference on Geo-information science, University of Lund, June 2018.
Download the PDF version here: AGILE_poster_Final_June2018

AGILE_poster_Final_June2018

Views on challenges for disaster management research, policy and practice: a call for new perspectives

Dr Billy Tusker Haworth, Lecturer and Programme Director MSc International Disaster Management, Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester.
E: billy.haworth@manchester.ac.uk, Twitter: @BillyTusker
This post originally appeared on the HCRI blog.

Disaster management, in theory and in practice, is complex to say the least. While there are many things that are done well and are well-understood, many challenges remain for researchers, policy makers, and emergency practitioners. Even as a Lecturer in Disaster Management and Programme Director for a Masters programme specifically focused on International Disaster Management, I do not purport to be an expert on most aspects of the field. Drawing from my own research and wider reading, teaching, observations made at academic and industry conferences, and experiences with emergency organisations, my aim for this post is to reflect on four aspects of disaster management that I think are problematic, challenging for the field, or in need of improvement for more effective disaster management. These words are merely one academic’s musings on where further research and/or policy attention may be warranted, and I welcome any comments or discussions from others.

  1. Can we bounce past resilience yet?
    The concept of resilience has come into vogue in disaster research and practice over the past decade and now dominates policy agendas throughout the world (e.g. Sendai framework). Resilience has great merit in application to disaster management in theory.  It is not difficult to see how either of the most popular conceptualisations of resilience can be useful in aiding understanding of disasters; resilience as the ability of a system (or community, or individual) to either absorb stress and resist significant disruption (social-ecological perspective), or to ‘bounce back’ to normal functioning following a shock (engineering perspective). However, the application of these concepts to disaster management, both in policy interpretations and in practical measures to ‘build’ resilience, remains a challenge.There are numerous extant critiques of resilience in the disaster literature, many of which I agree with. These include, among others, a lack of consensus over what resilience actually is, that resilience definitions routinely combine elements of both ecological and engineering resilience (such as the definition adopted by UNISDR) but these are actually somewhat contradictory ideas, that measuring resilience is too difficult, and the question of whether it is appropriate for people to ‘bounce back’ to their pre-disaster conditions, which for many may be a highly vulnerable and undesirable state. The counter to this last critique has been proposals of revised interpretations of resilience as ‘building back better’ or ‘bouncing forward’.For me the central problem with resilience lies in a series of disconnects. I perceive a disconnect between what resilience refers to in academic conceptualisations and how these are interpreted and applied in disaster policies, and I see a further disconnect between resilience in policy and what it looks like, or how it is implemented and/or achieved in practice. I have heard numerous emergency practitioners in Australia and the UK say in public forums that they do not know what resilience is, or that the field is struggling to comprehend resilience approaches, yet these are the people responsible for implementing (and often devising) policies centred around resilience. I myself often find it difficult to see concrete connections between the theoretical understandings of resilience in academic literature and ‘resilience building activities’ in practice, which often appear to be increasingly about shifting the responsibility of emergency agencies over to the public. It is often unclear in resilience policies how one should go about actually implementing ‘resilience building’ at all. This, I argue, causes confusion, and without clear means for achieving the goals of resilience policies, they remain ineffective and draw attention away from developing more meaningful approaches.

    Whether resilience is just a buzzword, or whether or not policy interpretations and implementations align with academic theory may or may not be important, if whatever the strategies are in practice achieve their aims of decreasing disaster impacts for communities. But in terms of the amount of attention given to the concept in research and in practice versus the measurable benefits for reducing disaster impacts, perhaps it is time we moved the debate on and bounced right on past resilience (in theory, at least).

  1. Can we more meaningfully include the public in disaster risk reduction?
    Coupled with the growing resilience agenda has been a push to increase community engagement in disaster risk reduction, with research demonstrating that information dissemination alone is insufficient for meaningful risk reduction and disaster preparedness action. Approaches centred on community engagement are becoming increasingly present in emergency organisations, likely with varying success (the Tasmania Fire Service’s Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods programme appears to me to be one of the better ones).

mapping Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods community engagement activities: participatory mapping (image credit: Billy Haworth).

In Australia and elsewhere, the push for increased community engagement presents in concert with broader policy agendas of shared responsibility. As a policy shared responsibility emphasises that the burden of emergency management and risk reduction should be shouldered by all parties involved, including national, state, and local government, as well as other stakeholders, businesses, communities, households and individuals, while recognising that the weight of responsibility and expected tasks looks different for these different groups. Similar to my thoughts on resilience, I argue there are differences between shared responsibility and community engagement in theory and policy and how they appear in practice. Scholars have critiqued shared responsibility as being more akin to the public ‘doing what agencies want them to’ (like creating their own emergency plans in order to better-help themselves), rather than sharing of much at all, and state that in order to share responsibility for disaster resilience, control over risk management decisions, actions and processes also needs to be shared. In disaster management at present, this largely doesn’t occur.

When citizens are engaged in disaster management and have been involved by their own volition, they are often seen as problematic or disruptive by authorities, as has been the case with some instances of spontaneous volunteering or the public’s use of social media during crises. While a policy shift has occurred from response to disaster risk reduction and resilience building (community engagement) over the last decade or so, I believe considerable cultural change in emergency organisations is still required to more meaningfully value and incorporate citizens and their knowledge into disaster risk reduction.

The field of citizen science offers important lessons learnt of relevance to disaster management. Citizen science refers to the practice of engaging members of the public in scientific research. Thanks to citizens observing, collecting, sharing and analysing data, a vast range of high-quality scientific research has been completed, much of which would not have been possible otherwise. If disaster management valued community knowledge like citizen science does, protocols and systems could be established to promote and encourage the most useful citizen practices and allow for improved harnessing of citizen action and community-supplied information.

  1. Can we better-incorporate and appreciate gender and sexual diversity in disaster management (policies, organisations, and research)?
    Here, there are three areas I believe need further attention: 1) considerations of gender and sexual minorities in responding to and managing disasters, 2) diversity of personnel in emergency organisations, and 3) diversity in research and teaching. Sexual and gender minorities are commonly recognised as a vulnerable group in disaster policies. Yet, research into LGBTIQ experiences in disasters highlights significant policy and practice failings (such as the lack of planning and provision for the safety of transgender people when using bathrooms in evacuation or refuge centres). These failings are often due to hetero-normative assumptions around things like what a ‘family’ looks like (e.g. a family with two mums may not be recognised in the same way as a family with male and female parents in policies in some jurisdictions). Heterogeneity within groups such as ‘gender and sexual minorities’, and that disaster risk is also experienced unequally within vulnerable populations, also needs further recognition in disaster policy (and in research!). Lesbians, bisexual women and queers of colour, for instance, were more vulnerable during Hurricane Katrina than white middle-class gay men due to lower incomes and the neighbourhoods where they lived being subject to increased flooding. Lastly here, and quite simply, failure to recognise people as anything other than male or female in disaster policy terminology highlights the shortfall between operational disaster management and the actual needs and makeup of contemporary societies.

blue diamond.jpg The LGBT+ rights group Blue Diamond Society in Nepal established a camp for LGBT+ people following earthquakes in 2015, as neither the UN nor the government delivered non-binary aid, despite Nepal legally recognising transgender people (image credit: Blue Diamond Society).

Emergency organisations have made concerted efforts in recent years to increase diversity in their ranks, particularly related to gender. But these efforts have largely been flawed (or at least limited) from the beginning in that they frequently consider gender diversity as an issue concerned only with increasing the proportions of women in organisations. While this is certainly needed, there is no question (in many societies at least, and especially in the West), that there are people who do not align with or identify as either of these binary terms. So, why is the discussion around gender diversity so often limited to male or female? I have witnessed a number of disaster management conference sessions and panels on “Diversity” that have not only focused almost solely on gender in the absence of other diversity challenges, such as increasing representation of sexual minorities, racial and ethnic groups, indigenous peoples, religious affiliations, or people living with disabilities, but have based diversity discussions on quotas for number of women in organisations. Such a narrow framing of diversity has a range of negative implications.

For issues of trust, risk communication, and the heeding of warnings, it is important that the people serving a community ‘look like’ the community, and thus in increasingly diverse societies, there needs to be greater representation of diversity in all forms in emergency organisations. In Australia at least, it is no secret that disaster management in practice is dominated by older straight white males, which may be difficult for many in communities to relate to. A lack of diversity also impacts the amount of and types of people who volunteer in disaster organisations. Volunteers are vital to many organisations, but again, if organisations don’t represent them, community members may not be inclined to join. Significantly, if the people designing and implementing disaster policies do not represent or at least appreciate the diversity of populations they are working for, disaster management in policy and practice will remain limited in its ability to adequately deliver its aims of decreasing disaster impacts for communities (as per my first point in this section).

In academia, I believe we can do better here too. Emergency organisations are not unique in their often narrow binary framings of gender. In terms of further work, we need more research into experiences of gender and sexual minorities in disaster management in general, and into more nuanced and specific questions in a variety of contexts, such as exploration of differences between groups under the LGBTIQ umbrella, and further, between individuals within each of those sub-categories. In teaching on disaster management we could look to include perspectives from a more diverse range of scholars from various backgrounds. While I haven’t surveyed the suggested readings for my courses, my feeling is the author list is likely dominated by cisgender males, probably Caucasian and heterosexual too.

  1. Can we encourage more comprehensive and better-informed media reporting of disasters beyond crisis response?
    Mainstream media reporting on disaster management largely focuses on immediate response to emergencies. I appreciate this may make for a more exciting news story, but this presents a limited view of disaster management, which is complex and involves so much more than emergency response. Promotion of activities like disaster preparedness in news stories may be helpful for achieving some of the policy objectives mentioned above, such as disaster risk reduction and community resilience. Further, disaster impacts do not stop when the journalists move on, and the effects of disasters extend into the future, often for years. Yet, disaster recovery stories are rarely told (there are exceptions of course, e.g. Al Jazeera produced a number of follow-up stories in the years after the Haiti earthquake in 2010).

    Media tend to over-report the experiences of ‘home citizens’ in disaster areas, for example the stories of British citizens impacted by Hurricane Irma in the United States, or Australian and British tourists in areas impacted by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. My colleague, Gemma Sou, has written on these and related topics, and calls for greater recognition of the impacts to local people in disaster regions. Further to this, I argue that increased emphasis on home citizens in the media discourages people at ‘home’ from relating risk to themselves (by ‘home’, I mean the country the media outlet is largely reporting to, e.g. BBC to Britain). Reporting on tourists in disasters contributes to a mentality that disasters happen ‘over there’ and people who go ‘over there’ are at risk, but they are safe at home, which is not an accurate narrative.

    Finally, western media could present a more global picture of disasters (particularly those claiming to deliver ‘world news’). During Hurricane Irma in the US, for instance, there were several ongoing disasters with impacts on populations comparable to Irma that received substantially less coverage (e.g. cholera outbreak in Yemen, floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, a mudslide in Sierra Leone). Alluding to my points in section 3, media could also present stories on and from more diverse perspectives in delivering more global pictures of disasters (Research has shown LGBTIQ narratives are rarely told in mainstream disaster reporting, for instance, and news media influences both public understandings and disaster policies). Of course, I recognise the commercial impetus that influences what and how journalists and media outlets report on disasters, and the reality of providing content that will satisfy readers (paying customers). I would question, however, the role of national, largely government (or tax payer) funded news broadcasters. Are national broadcasters like the BBC or ABC (Australia) presenting the kind of balanced coverage of disasters we (I, at least) might hope for from a non-commercial service?

These are just some of the current research, policy, and practice challenges I perceive for disaster management, and of course there are many more. While we continue to conduct our work and engage in this field, whether it be through policy and practice, academic research, or studies at HCRI and elsewhere, I encourage us to be aware: aware of our relative positions and perspectives, and to increasingly consider the perspectives of others. I started this post by saying that disaster management is complex, and I will finish in recognition of that by calling for greater integration between individuals and sectors involved in disaster management, including academia, government and disaster organisations, the private sector, and, significantly, citizens from all walks of life, because complex problems are rarely solved with simple solutions.

Gratitude: my thesis acknowledgements

There are people I sincerely wanted to thank for their support in various capacities during my PhD. I included some (not all, unfortunately) in the Acknowledgements section of my thesis, but I’m aware only a very tiny number of people in the world will actually read that (basically me plus or minus 1). So, here I paste my acknowledgements, as they appeared in the thesis.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Version one:

First I wish to acknowledge and pay respect to Aboriginal people past and present as the traditional owners of the land on which I conducted this research, namely the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, whose ancestral lands the University of Sydney is built upon. I also wish to acknowledge the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community as the traditional and original owners, and continuing custodians of the land on which I conducted my fieldwork. As Aboriginal people continue their struggle for equality and justice in a land that was taken from them, I acknowledge many of the central themes of this thesis, including the value of local knowledge, community, sense of place, land management, and geography have been important for and practised by Aboriginal people on this land for some 60,000 years before I began thinking and writing about them.

I wish to sincerely thank Dr Eleanor Bruce as my PhD supervisor, mentor and friend. More than assisting with the practical, technical and theoretical aspects of my research, which has been instrumental, she encourages me, challenges me, treats me with respect and as an equal, provides opportunities, promotes me and my work, and has fostered enormous growth in me as an early career academic. It is immeasurable how much I have learnt from Eleanor and I am extremely grateful for having worked with her during these formative years.

I also thank my associate supervisors, Dr Joshua Whittaker, Associate Professor Kurt Iveson, and Professor Matt Duckham, whose expertise, guidance and encouragement have been beyond valuable for both the work of this thesis and my professional development. I also acknowledge the broader ‘Out of Uniform’ research team for their support.

I acknowledge the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC for providing me with scholarship funding, and I thank them for providing various learning, enriching, networking, and professional and personal development experiences. Lyndsey Wright, Michael Rumsewicz, Nathan Maddock and David Bruce have been especially helpful.

I give sincere thanks to Peter Middleton, the entire Bushfire-Ready Neighbourhoods (BRN) team, and the Tasmania Fire Service for their many forms of support and collaboration in this research. Special mention is given to Lesley King, Suzette Harrison, David Cleaver and Sandra Barber. Working collaboratively with the BRN has shaped my work to be something more meaningful and shaped me to be a more skilled and knowledgeable researcher with a better understanding of the professional and societal context in which my research sits.

There are others not associated with this thesis in an official capacity, but who have contributed significantly nonetheless. Here I wish to thank my officemate (soon to be Dr) Stephanie Duce for her companionship, empathy and encouragement. She is the smartest person I know and I hope she remembers me as her career flourishes. I also thank Dr Caren Cooper, Dr Eloise Biggs and Associate Professor Dale Dominey-Howes for their mentoring and helpful advice.

Perhaps the biggest thank you belongs to the Tasmanian community members and Australian emergency management professionals who participated in my research, either by completing a survey, an interview, or participating in a workshop. If I could name them all without compromising university research ethics, I would, because I am tremendously grateful for their time, patience, and valuable inputs to the research. The worth of local knowledge and the willingness of people to give time to others should never be undervalued.

I thank my friends and especially my housemates for remaining interested and supportive, and for giving me many, many things to enjoy outside of the PhD.

Finally, I give thanks to my family for their love, support and inspiration: Kobe, Latrell, Joe, Tara, Shannon and Jim. I give particular thanks to Dave for his unwavering interest and insightful conversations. And for my Mum, if I am proud of this work and my achievements, that doesn’t compare to how proud I am to be her son. I thank her for allowing me to be everything I am capable of.

To any marginalized individual or group who has ever been underrepresented on a map, or any citizen who has ever had their knowledge undervalued, at any time, in any context, as well as anybody who has never had anything dedicated to them, I dedicate this thesis to you.

Version two:

Cheers, thanks a lot.

Talking partnerships in emergency management (AFAC2016 conference)

(My contribution at 3mins)

Using participatory mapping to increase community engagement in bushfire preparation (AFAC/BNHCRC 2016 conference poster + presentation + award)

Recently I was fortunate to attend the annual Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council/Bushfire & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (AFAC/BNHCRC) conference in Brisbane, Queensland. I gave an oral presentation and presented a poster from some of my PhD research. And here the poster is for you to look at for free and keep forever!

Download Pdf: haworth_2016_afac_poster
The extended abstract for the oral presentation is also available to download: haworth_afac16_extended-abstract

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At the conference I was also awarded a Special Recognition Award from the BNHCRC for promoting the organisation and emergency management research in Australia and overseas; effective science communication through exceptional industry relationships, active blogging and social media activities; and a willingness to support the CRC and other students, often leading by example. It was unexpected and I am very thankful for the acknowledgement. True to the spirit of the award, I thought I should include it in a blog post. 🙂

And here is a couple of stills of me presenting taken from a video summary of the conference.
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Reflections: Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) annual conference, 2016

With support of the IAG, I recently attended the IAG annual conference in Adelaide. The theme of the conference, “Frontiers of Geographical Knowledge” was manifest in the jam-packed program, with a number of sessions focusing on the future of the discipline, globally-significant research areas such as natural hazards and disaster risk reduction, and topics reflecting broader social trends, such as greater recognition of the importance and value of indigenous culture, knowledge and research methods.

I found Lauren Rickards’ (RMIT) paper in the slow emergencies session particularly rewarding. Lauren presented on “colliding temporalities, biopolitics and ontologies in the Tasmanian wilderness fires” of 2016. In an engaging presentation she questioned interpretations of the term ‘resilience’ and made insightful comments on media, political and cultural understandings of bushfire in Australia. I also point to the paper by Leah Talbot (CSIRO) as a standout for me. Leah spoke on “Indigenous rights, country and people empowered through the use of Indigenous research methodologies,” where she made a case for the need to “move Aboriginal people from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat” in indigenous-related research.

Lauren was also a panelist in a discussion session on experiences of disaster resilience. This was the first all-female panel I’ve seen at a conference (I’ve certainly seen all-male) – awesome show of equality, IAG! I was also pleased to see numerous speakers, including keynotes, of non-white background as well as a strong Aboriginal presence at the conference, and South Australia’s first openly gay Member of Parliament, The Hon. Ian Hunter, gave the welcome address. As geographers we should be acutely aware of the dominant power-relations at play in our societies, and challenging these to give underrepresented and marginalized groups and individuals equal voices and opportunities seems to me an important contribution that the discipline can make, and this was evident at IAG.

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Me presenting at the IAG conference 2016. Photo credit: Joshua Whittaker. View on Instagram.

I presented a paper from my PhD research in the session chaired by Eloise Biggs (UWA) on Geospatial information for monitoring socio-environmental risk, alongside Andrew MacLachlan (Southampton) who presented on remote sensing urban expansion in Perth, and Alan Smith (Southampton), who’s paper addressed the development of a temporally dynamic population model for Perth. The paper I presented was co-authored with Joshua Whittaker and Eleanor Bruce and looks at volunteered geographic information (VGI) and disaster risk reduction through the application of participatory mapping in community bushfire preparation in Tasmania. The talk went well and the discussion at the end of the session was one of the best I’ve been a part of, with many in the room, not just the speakers, providing interesting input on a range of related issues raised by the presentations.

Another important aspect of IAG for me was time spent with people discussing research, networking, and making friends, especially as a postgrad and early career researcher. The lunch breaks were good for this, but the conference dinner was great. The IAG travel funds I was awarded helped facilitate the trip through my airfares to attend, but also they went towards accommodation, which I shared with two other early career researchers. I had a great time with these guys and have formed lasting career contacts and friendships, and I’m grateful for the support of the IAG.

Seminar presentation on PhD research: volunteered geographic information and bushfire preparation

Below is a recording of a 20 minute presentation I recently gave on my PhD research as part of the Thinking Space seminar series in the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney.

Reflections on a student placement with the Bushfire-Ready Neighbourhoods team at Tasmania Fire Service

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On student placement at TFS: PhD candidate Billy Haworth with a retro fire tanker in Launcestion

As I begin to write this in an office at Tasmania Fire Service Headquarters in Hobart, reflecting on the week I’ve just had, I am feeling very grateful. For the last three years I have been undertaking PhD studies in the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney. My research looks at the application, value, and implications of emerging technologies which enable increased public creation and exchange of geographic information, such as social media, smartphones and online mapping platforms, in the context of community bushfire preparation engagement and disaster risk reduction. I’ve had great support in my work from a number of people and organisations, but in particular the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC) and Peter Middleton and the Bushfire-Ready Neighbourhoods (BRN) team at the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS).

The BNHCRC supports end-user driven research projects in the field of emergency management for university researchers and students right across Australia. BRN is a community engagement program within TFS that aims to build resilience and capacity in bushfire prevention, preparedness and response in Tasmanian communities at risk to bushfire through a sustainable community engagement approach. The BNHCRC and BRN have been integral to my PhD project in many ways, and have also contributed to my professional development. Recently this included an eight-day student placement based in Tasmania with BRN as part of a BNHCRC initiative to enrich higher degree research students’ experience through exposure to the natural hazards and emergency management industry via immersion in a relevant organisation.

During the placement I participated in a range of activities with the BRN team and various other parts of TFS – some directly linked to my PhD research, but some not – to give me a broader understanding of the range of organisation activities and functions, and an appreciation of the context in which my research might be utilised in the future. Here I will provide a brief description of the key activities I undertook, followed by some general reflections on my student placement experience.

BRN monthly team meeting: I sat in on a BRN staff meeting which involved an update on various projects, presentation of each team member’s recent work highlights, and planning future tasks. As I have been working with BRN for my PhD, with Tasmanian communities as my study sites, I also used this time to present and discuss with the team my research activities and findings to date.

BRN community selection planning day: A planning day was held for the BRN team to begin planning how they will select the communities they will work with for the next round of their community engagement works. We worked through the program aims and objectives, identified gaps in current engagement works (e.g. youth, tourists), and workshopped the criteria for community selection.

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BRN community selection planning day at Launceston TFS Headquarters

UTAS – BRN mapping platform project meeting: A project to produce a mapping platform for BRN to use with communities in their engagement works is being orchestrated by the University of Tasmania and BRN, with my participation. We had an encouraging meeting to discuss the project direction and possible funding and grant applications.

Hobart Fire Brigade tour: I had a tour of the fire station with a chance to chat with a few of the firefighters about their role, training, and the tasks they complete. Cheers to Sandy and Jo for giving me a VERY detailed tour of all the fire appliances, their tools and functions, with interesting illustrative examples of applications!

Introduction to TFS Firecomm: I spent an afternoon in the TFS communications room learning about their computer systems, communication structures, and emergency incident/alert procedures, as well as what happens if it all goes wrong!

Community engagement – Golden Valley phone tree/website: I joined in a BRN meeting with some highly active community members to talk about some of their community-led bushfire safety initiatives, including a web-based phone tree system, a local mapping project for the brigade, and an alerts smartphone app proposal.

Community Liaison debrief/workshop: I participated in a workshop to debrief what went well, what didn’t ,and what improvements can be made in the future for BRN team members and others who played key roles in community liaison for the recent extended bushfire campaign in Tasmania.

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BRN & Fuel Reduction Unit Community Liaison debrief following 2016 fires, Campbell Town fire station

BRN supervisor staff meeting: I sat in on a ‘catch up’ meeting between Peter Middleton and his manager in Community Education, Sandra Barber.

Review of bushfire survival planning tools: BRN is producing a tool for community members to make Bushfire Survival Plans online, and I assisted by reviewing the content and language.

Introduction to TFS State Operations: I was given an introduction to TFS state operations, including response procedures, fire fighting aircraft, public and media information publishing, and role responsibilities by the Senior Station Officer, Phil Smith.

Introduction to Community Protection Planning: Chris Collins gave me an introduction to the different kinds of mapping TFS use in public safety, including community protection plans for the public, and response plans with important local information for brigades to use in responding to an incident.

Reflecting on all these activities, three overarching observations come to mind. First, I was struck by the scale and diversity of what goes on within the organisation and all the specific details required to make things happen, from the fit-for-purpose tools on the fire trucks on a small scale, to the multi-faceted roles within individual teams and departments, to the broader scale of the overall functions the agency performs. Second, I was impressed by the positive attitude to work and the productivity of all the people I met, but particularly the BRN team, especially in the face of various challenges. For example, while the debrief workshop around community liaison following an extended fire campaign did aim to highlight challenges in the work each team member experienced through having to perform many tasks in high-stress situations outside their usual roles, these challenges were dealt with as opportunities for improvement. By the end of the session there was an extensive list of practical suggestions the team will begin to action to enable them to perform better in their roles going forward. And third, I saw very clear examples of some of the complexities in the organisation that must be navigated for effective delivery of emergency management initiatives. In particular, I observed differences between some of the community-focused engagement works and the more traditional top-down structure of the broader organisation. Community engagement is a relatively new approach to emergency management in Australia, and it appeared to me reconciling how this approach fits within the legacy of emergency response service delivery in organisations is still a developing area, as opposed to being functionally developed. This may present challenges when working with community groups and is perhaps an area for improvement going forward.

Overall the student placement was an immensely enriching and valuable experience. It proved a useful opportunity to increase my networking within the professional sector, impart some of my knowledge, gain insight into the fire service and broader field of emergency management, learn about the high variety of important tasks and responsibilities, and to appreciate the organisational structure and challenges emergency management professionals have to work with. This has important implications for the potential utilisation of my research findings in the sector, and is something I will continue to consider as my research progresses.

I feel grateful for this opportunity and the continued support of TFS and BNHCRC of my research and my personal and professional development. I feel grateful for the generous people I have had the privilege of meeting and working with and who have had nothing less than confidence in me. I feel grateful for all the experiences I’ve had in my PhD so far, especially those with the BRN such as this placement, as they have shaped my work to be something more meaningful, and shaped me to be a more robust researcher who is more skilled and more knowledgeable with a better understanding and appreciation of the professional and societal context in which my research sits. I’ve learnt a lot through my engagement with TFS and the emergency management sector, and I encourage other students and agencies to undertake placements, as it was a truly rewarding experience.

Thanks to Peter Middleton and the BRN team, Suzette Harrison, David Cleaver, and Lesley King, and the Tasmania Fire Service for hosting me, and Peter Middleton, Eleanor Bruce and the BNHCRC for making the placement happen.

Field notes: Community mapping for bushfire preparation in Tolmans Hill, TAS.

 

Following on from my last two posts about my PhD fieldwork and research workshops in Kettering, and in St Marys and St Helens in Tasmania, this post documents the fourth and final workshop, held in Tolmans Hill, a suburb of Hobart. Assisting me with the workshop this time was Peter Middleton from the Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods program at TFS.

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Some of the Tolmans Hill community mapping.

We had a small turnout of only six people, but the workshop was still very interesting for both my research and the participants. As with the previous workshops, participants were interested in improving bushfire management, mapping, and my general research (though, as I’ve learnt through this journey, that’s not too remarkable as people wouldn’t attend if they weren’t interested, would they?). Again, they saw a lot of potential in both paper mapping and computer mapping (with similar pros and cons of each as discussed at the other workshops). They generally saw their volunteered geographic information in either paper or digital form as most useful, and most needed, for helping build engagement in bushfire preparation within their community, as opposed to being useful data for emergency response services, for example.

While the mapping activities identified potential safer places, hazards and assets to the community, significantly the activities also revealed to participants how little they knew about other people in their community, how unprepared for and disengaged in bushfire their community probably is, and generally how disconnected their community is. They talked about not even feeling comfortable knocking on their neighbour’s door, which to me was in stark contrast to other communities I visited, such as Kettering where participants were very well-connected and engaged in bushfire to the level that on their maps they were including their various different neighbourhood bushfire management groups. We discussed how important that sense of community might be for improving bushfire preparedness in Tolmans Hill. Referring back to the community map, participants identified things like a location for a playground and potential local coffee shop that may be useful in improving community connections (currently Tolmans Hill is entirely residential and people have to go to other areas for work, school, playgrounds, morning coffee and the newspaper etc). By the end of the workshop the six community members in attendance had exchanged contact details with the aim to start a volunteer working group to begin addressing issues in the community and/or establish a phone tree for bushfire communication. Some decided on going to local Bushcare group events to get more volunteer support from Tolmans Hill and begin removing hazardous weeds in the area, and one even gave his details to join the volunteer fire brigade! Good research findings or otherwise, I felt those were some pretty awesome outcomes of my workshop!

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Screenshot of the (incomplete) online community map.

Despite some disappointments, I feel really good to have completed these workshops and my PhD fieldwork! It’s been an encouraging, useful and hugely insightful trip. It’s been super interesting to see how different people think about and relate to the same places in very different ways. I’ve learnt a lot already without even analysing the data I’ve collected, from the organisational and practical aspects of running events through to the nuances of human behaviour, bushfire management and some of the challenges communities and emergency services face. Above all, I am energized by the power of geography and mapping to bring people together, to describe and communicate complex and important information for a range of issues, and to greatly increase our understanding of the world around us.

This fieldwork is funded by the IAWF PhD scholarship and the research is supported by the BNHCRC, Tasmania Fire Service, and the University of Sydney. In particular, I want to thank the people who gave their time and energy to help me in planning for this fieldwork, running the workshops, and spreading the word of the events, including (but I’m sure there are more) Eleanor Bruce, Peter Middleton, Josh Whittaker, Wendy Suthern, Nikki Montenegro, Stephanie Duce, Tegan Hall, Mark Vicol, Lesley King, David Cleaver, Suzette Harrison, RJ McDonald, Val Brown, Annick Ansselin, Nathan Maddock, Lyndsey Wright, Julie Severin, Andrew Johns, Kurt Iveson, Matt Duckham, Verity Coltman and David Gage. I also want to thank all the workshop participants – the research would literally be nothing without you!

Field notes: Community mapping for bushfire preparation in St Marys and St Helens, TAS.

Following on from my last post on the community mapping workshop I ran in Kettering, this post describes the next workshops as part of my PhD fieldwork for the topic VGI, community engagement and bushfire preparation. Rather than repeating content from the last post about the research context, and the purpose and description of the workshops, I’ll go straight to discussing how the workshops went and what I observed.

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Community members from nearby Scamander began by making comments on existing fire service bushfire planning maps.

At the workshop held in St Marys on Saturday 10 people from the area participated, recruited predominantly through Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods (BRN) networks, a mail-out to a random sample of 150 households, flyers in local shops and word-of-mouth. Participants were varied, including an emergency management consultant, local council member, farmers, and retirees, for instance, providing a diverse group with useful local knowledge to contribute to the mapping activities. Assisting me with this workshop was David Cleaver from the BRN program at the Tasmania Fire Service, and volunteer assistant from the University of Sydney, RJ McDonald.

Participants were also from varying locations around St Marys and not from the town itself, which made the paper mapping activity a little difficult for some. Their homes and the areas they were most familiar with were not in the frame of the paper maps at the scale I had printed them. This is probably quite typical of many rural and bushfire prone areas with many living in smaller places, often on properties, and travelling to a nearby larger town or community when they need to. This limitation of the paper mapping proved to highlight a benefit of digital mapping for participants where capability exists to navigate the map to different locations and zoom in and out to map information a different scales.

As with the workshop in Kettering, even though some initially found the software a challenge, people generally preferred the computer mapping activity. The paper mapping again was recognised as valuable for its low-tech simplicity for older people and those without internet or computer access and for the connections people make by coming together to work on the maps in person. But apart from the common concerns with online mapping (issues of power outages and computer access; a little worry about privacy and malicious intent) most of the comments on the potential use of web mapping and VGI for bushfire preparation in their community were positive. Rather than leading the web mapping myself like last time, this time I gave a laptop or tablet to the groups to map their information themselves, and, after some hesitation, most then engaged with the activity much more beneficially and began to see even greater potential for mapping in their community. They discussed how portable and up-to-date a web map can be and how useful it may be for others in the community perhaps less engaged in more traditional bushfire preparation activities like forums, such as younger people. They discussed how online mapping would be useful for vulnerable groups such as travellers, people new to the area, and those who speak languages other than English.

Observing the activities and the things participants chose to map, the content tended to focus on response to a fire event, and people didn’t map a lot about their own preparedness. As you can see on the web map screenshot below people mapped services and assets useful to know in a fire event (they also mapped the same things several times – another consideration with crowdsourcing). While this is certainly useful and clearly did still get people engaged in thinking spatially about their bushfire risk and planning, I also see great potential for even more local, more diverse, and more individually-useful information to be mapped. An example might be the locations of people who have tools available to help others clear vegetation and prepare their homes, or sites of cultural significance, or places important to individual families, or identification of vulnerable people in neighbourhoods who might need extra consideration and assistance in preparing for and responding to a fire. And indeed, some participants excitedly discussed at the end of the workshop how they’d like to carry out similar mapping activities in their local areas with their neighbours to better understand bushfire risk and preparation, which was fantastic to hear! Perhaps the real value of mapping and VGI for bushfire preparation lies in the highly local scenario, to create, map, and share geographic information with those at the neighbourhood scale, rather than the broader aggregated community level where the information may become less relevant to specific individuals. As workshop participants said about the paper mapping versus the computer mapping, there is probably value and merit in both.

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Community members from nearby Scamander began by making comments on existing fire service bushfire planning maps.

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A screenshot of the (incomplete) community web map.

On Sunday I set up for a workshop in St Helens with help from Suzette Harrison at the BRN and RJ McDonald. I had been told in advance from those at the local council and those previously trying to undertake community engagement works in St Helens that I may not get a large turnout. However I was still pretty disappointed when not a single person arrived for the workshop. After about an hour waiting we called it a day and packed up. I am running four workshops on this trip, partly to explore how community mapping might work in different types of communities, but also as a safety net in case a workshop doesn’t go too well. So this ‘failure’ is disappointing for me given all the time, money, and effort we put in to the event, but it is not detrimental to the research. I’ve got two successful workshops under my belt already with a great amount of information to work with for my thesis, and I still have one more workshop to come this Saturday (December 5th) in Tolmans Hill, which hopefully will also be a useful event.

But of course I have to stop and question why this particular event failed. When I think about the effort I put in to recruiting participants and advertising the event I can’t see much more I could have done. I contacted people who participated in my research in the past about coming to this event (of which 3 confirmed they would attend). I had flyers up in local businesses and community centres. I contacted many groups in the area initially with a general flyer in the mail and later with a personalised email, including the Lions Club, Rotary, day care centres, community development association, schools, arts groups, and local council, to name a few, with a number of these informing me they would share among their networks. I sent information out to a random sample of 150 households in the area. I had the information shared on various local Facebook pages as well as statewide pages like Tasmania Fire Service and Landcare. I also paid for some advertising on Facebook targetted at the St Helens postcode in the week leading up to the event (apparently my $34 spent got my ad to 400 people’s pages). The workshop was also advertised in council newsletters and on the BRN website. Other ideas I had included spots on local radio, in newspapers, or just random door-knocking. But I’m not sure how much difference that would have made.

I was told this community is particularly hard to reach and my experience is similar to others working in this area. In terms of the research, maybe the interest was low because they’ve done a lot of surveys recently? In terms of bushfire preparedness engagement, maybe they generally feel they are prepared enough? Or (worryingly) perhaps they are complacent about the likelihood of a bushfire event impacting them here? St Helens actually experienced a small bushfire event last year where a number of issues arose that I thought might have made this workshop an interesting one. But even a recent event hasn’t triggered widespread interest in fire management in the area (that I or others have seen). Perhaps the idea of giving up four hours on a weekend was just too unattractive (though, I do provide a free lunch!), or perhaps this community was a little too close in proximity to St Marys (about 35 km away; I actually think they are very different communities in a number of key ways so still think there was justification for choosing both). Even still, while I don’t think word of my workshop reached every one of the few thousand residents, I am pretty certain it reached at least several hundred, and it is a bit baffling that not a single person was interested enough to attend. If that is a reflection of their engagement in bushfire preparation broadly, I must say I’m a bit worried about the potential impacts of a bushfire in St Helens, and hopefully further community engagement activities in the future have more success.

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The upside of a failed workshop – more sandwiches for me!

Going forward I need to think a bit more about why St Helens didn’t work and relate that to my last workshop in Tolmans Hill. Is there anything I can do differently this week to ensure a good turnout at my last workshop? As I said earlier, I’ve had a good experience overall on the fieldwork so far, and I’m confident that will continue at the next event. Tolmans Hill is a unique place in that it is so close to a large urban centre (Hobart) yet all the houses are surrounded by bush, and Tolmans Hill itself is an entirely residential suburb (no shops, school etc in the immediate area), so I’m looking forward to seeing how folk there respond to the activities and the potential use of VGI and mapping for bushfire preparation in that area.

This fieldwork is funded by the IAWF PhD scholarship and the research is supported by the BNHCRC, Tasmania Fire Service, and the University of Sydney.

Field notes: Community mapping for bushfire preparation in Kettering, TAS

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Self portrait: waiting for my first workshop attendees to arrive.

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.

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Participants working on their local bushfire preparation map.

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

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Paper map completed by one of the groups.

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

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Paper map completed by one of the groups.

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.

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A screenshot of the (incomplete) community web map.

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!

This fieldwork is funded by the IAWF PhD scholarship and the research is supported by the BNHCRC, Tasmania Fire Service, and the University of Sydney.

Connecting, informing, and building relationships: notes from the 2015 BNHCRC sustainable volunteering workshop

This week the Bushfire & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC) Sustainable Volunteering cluster held a workshop to report on research progress, help develop research agendas for 2016, and identify end user utilisation needs. The workshop was hosted by Blythe McLennan, John Handmer and Josh Whittaker at the RMIT Centre for Risk and Community Safety in Melbourne and was attended by researchers, students, and emergency organisation representatives, or end users, from around the country involved in two research projects:

Each project gave a number of presentations which were then discussed. End users offered their thoughts, particularly in breakout sessions centred on improving research utilisation, and a guest presenter, Professor Mary Comerio from the University of California, Berkeley, gave a keynote presentation on resilience, recovery and community renewal.

Presenting my PhD research

Presenting my PhD research

For me personally the event was beneficial in a number of ways, including:

  • I was able to present my PhD work to a varied and diverse audience of both people with research backgrounds and those in industry and professional roles (the StoryMap I used for my presentation is here: http://tinyurl.com/nzxrju4). My research investigates the social practice of citizens creating and sharing geographic information in disaster management and the potential use of enabling technologies, such as crowdsourced mapping, social media and smartphones, for increasing community engagement in bushfire preparation. These practices are quite dramatically impacting professional systems and traditional authoritative emergency management. So, to have that breadth of expertise in the field listening to and commenting on my findings was a unique and valuable experience.
  • Being located in different cities, it was an excellent opportunity to catch up on how the broader research my own work is connected to is progressing.
  • I was able to foster existing connections with other researchers in my project (Out of uniform) and its end users, engage with complementary research, and also make new ties important for my current research and my future career.
  • I gained useful insight into the collaborative research process between academia and industry.
  • I gained insight into the challenges of research communication and utilisation, particularly in attempting to align research goals and outcomes with agency needs whilst navigating often-rigid organisation structures and processes. The sometimes-competing nature of these two different systems and ways of operating with different needs and different values at times felt a little akin to my own research, which considers how to align mostly-unstructured citizen information-sharing practices with highly structured formal systems of information control and dissemination in authoritative emergency management. In both cases I think balance is important to gain the most beneficial and optimised outcomes for all parties. A balance of needs and methods to meet those needs, but also a balance of expectations.
Fiona Jennings presenting her PhD research

Fiona Jennings presenting her PhD research

One minor concern I had during the workshop was that perhaps some other people important in the research needed to be there for these discussions. While it was fantastic to have the interaction of researchers and agencies, I thought, who was missing? Given the out of uniform project in particular is centered on people volunteering and participating in disaster management outside of formal or traditional settings (e.g. emergent community groups, spontaneous volunteers, online activities), I felt more people from community engagement organisations and roles, as well as representatives of these non-traditional volunteering groups would have been extremely valuable contributors in the workshop. PhD student at RMIT Fiona Jennings’ research, for example, is exploring community-led bushfire recovery with really valuable insights even in its early stages. While Fiona’s research clearly has important lessons for emergency agencies, I felt like the real ‘end users’ of her research might in fact be community organisations and community members undertaking disaster recovery. Yet, representatives of those groups unfortunately weren’t as present at the event and hence not included in the discussions.

Overall I thought it was a really useful event and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be involved. My impression is it is quite rare in academic research to have such a close relationship with industry like the BNHCRC provides. While the end users may benefit from the researcher’s findings, we also benefit enormously from having their input throughout the research journey. I’m unlikely the first person to say it, but perhaps ‘end user’ is the wrong term. This workshop alone highlights the important role the agency representatives play in contributing to the research development, progression and utilisation as partners, not simply end users of the outputs, and I hope they remain active and excited about their involvement in the research. I look forward to the next opportunity for us to share more ideas in the future.

Power to the people: Implications of volunteered geographic information for official emergency management (AFAC/BNHCRC 2015 conference poster)

Earlier this month I was fortunate to attend the annual Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council/Bushfire & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (AFAC/BNHCRC) conference in Adelaide, South Australia. I was invited to give a Three Minute Thesis presentation, which I did. I also presented a poster on the implications of VGI on traditional emergency management from some of my PhD research, and here it is for you to look at for free and keep forever!
Download Pdf: B.Haworth_BNHCRC-AFAC Poster-2015_Final

B.Haworth_BNHCRC-AFAC Poster-2015_Final

A brief intro to my research (video)

Recently the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC asked me to speak for a minute about my PhD research as part of a ‘Science direct in videos‘ initiative showcasing projects in short YouTube videos. This post is just to share my 1-minute of fame (heads up: I say ‘wow’ funny).

‘Community’ and emergency management: A problematic construct

Image courtesy of alphacoders.com

We hear the term ‘community’ used widely in a variety of contexts. We talk about communities being defined geographically (a town as a ‘local community’, for example), we talk about communities being defined by shared interests (an online gaming community or a sports community, for instance), and we talk about communities as groups that share some characteristic somewhat outside of chosen interests, such as a group impacted by a natural disaster, perhaps.  We talk about the ‘sense of community’ that particular places or groups, such as organised religion, may provide. We even talk about community as something we can build.  Sometimes we choose to be part of these communities and sometimes they are chosen for us, either by others in that particular community or society in general.  Here I’m thinking about things like homosexual individuals being considered by others around them as part of a ‘gay community’ whose interests and values they may in fact identify very minimally with.  Thus it may be the case that we see individuals as part of a particular community, but if asked, they may not see themselves that way.  So I question, how can one term adequately cover all these vastly different circumstances?

I find the term ‘community’ somewhat puzzling and I feel I’m not the only one.  Yet, the term is employed practically and ubiquitously without much question (including by me in my own research).  What does the term ‘community’ actually mean?  Is ‘community’ measurable?  Where does the term have value and where is it problematic?  And in the cases that it is problematic, is there an alternative way of thinking we should adopt?  There are many issues to explore here, so I am going to focus on community in the context of emergency management, partly for a framing of my thoughts, and partly because having ties to this industry through my research has highlighted to me some of the ways I think the term is useful and some of the ways I think it is problematic in this context.

Defining ‘community’ in emergency management

Emergency management in policy and practice utilises a range of key concepts that are in part defined by the term ‘community’.  The ‘community safety approach’ involves empowering communities to share responsibility for risk management, focusing on preparation and planning and developing partnerships between communities and risk management agencies (McLennan & Handmer 2012).  ‘Community resilience’ is a set of characteristics describing how a social system responds and manages disruption (Foster & Hoy 2012).  ‘Community engagement’ is an organised process of working with specific groups of people connected by a geographic location, special interest, affiliation or identity to address issues affecting their well-being (Department of Sustainability and Environment 2012).  Even considering just these three examples gives me a slightly blurry impression of what community means in an emergency management context.  Is it about partnerships or responsibility of risk?  Is it a social system?  Is it a group connected by location or interests?  Is it all these things at once or does its meaning change?  If we are to base emergency management on the community, and if we are to engage the community in planning and self-protection, we require a clear and accurate sense of what is meant by community (Buckle 1999).

The meaning of ‘community’ may have different meanings for different people.  The Oxford dictionaries (2014) define community as a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.  For emergency management a common characteristic may be something as broad as being at risk to a common hazard, such as bushfire.  Buckle (1999) describes community as any grouping of people that have something in common or something shared (and believing that they have something in common and having only that as a communal attribute may be sufficient to define a community).  Frandsen (2012) emphasises that communities are unbounded by physical locale.  In emergency management practice, however, community is often taken as synonymous with the people living within a defined administrative, cultural, or populated spatial unit, for example a local government area, town or locality (Buckle 1999).  Community, it seems to me, particularly refers to members of the general public; rarely have I seen those working in the emergency management industry refer to themselves in official dialogue as part of the communities they are working to keep safe (but perhaps this is just semantic).  What is meant by ‘community’ and whether or not it is an understood concept (in theory and in practice) may have important implications for the success and value of emergency management approaches centered upon it.

‘Community’ as useful

There are benefits in emergency management to considering the community as the simple delineation of groups of people based on geographic or administrative boundaries.  This approach is logistically useful in terms of provision of services and dispatch of emergency vehicles, personnel and resources for disaster response.  For preparation, this approach is useful as those in the same geographic area will likely experience similar risk.  Thus, communication is often directed at localities (Frandsen 2012).  Communicating to groups that they are a ‘community’ at risk further promotes the notion of this kind of community and reinforces the usefulness of considering community in this way for emergency management.

‘Community’ as problematic

If there are observable benefits, there are also important limitations to considering communities as geographical or administrative areas.  Significantly, it encourages overlooking the complexity of groups (Buckle 1999).  Communities as locations is useful for defining physical areas exposed to risk, but it is insufficient for capturing social and psychological diversity inherent within these areas and which influence patterns of associations between those residing within a location (Frandsen 2012).  Further, an individual may belong to a number of different communities that will overlap but are not necessarily coterminous.  Other types of communities may be completely removed from an individual’s physical geographic location but still highly important for emergency management, such as online communities.

I posit that a disconnect exists between the emergency management industry and the general public, or the ‘community’.  Observed in my experiences at least, the community is often referred to as an external entity to which emergency management is working to and not with. Community members are external to discussions and strategies that are supposedly aimed at supporting, protecting and engaging them.  I note this disconnect as problematic for the concept of ‘community’ as an emergency management construct as I feel for community-oriented strategies to be effective, those in emergency management need to consider themselves as part of the community, both to understand relevant local issues and to relate and engage more effectively with others in the community.  Even if we use the flawed notion of community defined by location, it is plausible many of those in emergency management do physically reside in the communities they are referring to and are thus exposed to the same risks.  Yet, often emergency management dialogue overlooks  this.

The idea that emergency management should be considered part of the community and vice versa prompts me to think of two scholarly works: 1) Blythe McLennan‘s work on shared responsibility, and; 2) Muki Haklay‘s on the levels of participation and engagement in Citizen Science projects.  On the first point, shared responsibility implies not necessarily equal responsibility, but that individuals, households, communities, state, municipal, and national agencies must all take some responsibility for managing disaster risk. However, if communities are not involved in processes of decision-making and therefore have no responsibility for determining what is important and why, how should they be expected to take responsibility for the related actions? The responsibility is ‘shared’ in theory, yet, in practice citizens don’t have the same kind of responsibility and are supposed to do only what authoritative emergency management informs they should do. On the second point, the ladder of participation informs as citizens increase their level of involvement in projects, the benefits they receive increase simultaneously. The benefits to citizens of high-level involvement, such as problem definition and analysis of results, are greater than low-level involvement, which may involve a citizen simply volunteering their computing capacity or using their smartphone as a passive sensor. For emergency management, if community members are more greatly involved in emergency management decision making processes, they may similarly receive greater benefits and ultimately be better-placed to manage risk, prepare, respond and recover more effectively to disaster events. I guess what I’m thinking about in arguing for increased involvement of citizens in emergency management decision making with these two works is a model of inclusive governance.

But even if I’m right in suggesting inclusive governance is needed to modify the ‘us and them’ dialogue of emergency management and communities, and that increasing community involvement will reduce some of the ways in which the notion of  ‘community’ is problematic, how could this be achieved in practice? Should community members be invited to participate in conference events and agency meetings? If so, who? Which people and which groups? How would that be determined and who might still be excluded? Should it be the other way around? Rather than increasing community involvement in official systems, perhaps the official systems should adapt to the community. Are these things at all measurable? Perhaps the term ‘community’ should be dumped altogether, if it is indeed problematic to refer to individuals that differ so much as a single, somewhat arbitrary entity. I don’t have answers to these questions, and I feel this is a topic that may be obvious in theory but quite messy in practice. But it seems to me implausible to assign single common ‘community’ goals for varied uncommon networks of people. The way the term ‘community’ is used may need rethinking, particular in emergency management, or at least how emergency management works with ‘communities’.

Non-traditional volunteering: VGI and bushfire preparation (AFAC/BNHCRC 2014 conference poster)

Earlier this month I was fortunate to attend the annual Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council/Bushfire & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (AFAC/BNHCRC) conference in Wellington, New Zealand.  I presented a poster on some of my PhD research on the role of VGI in disaster preparation and community engagement in Tasmania, and here it is!
A PDF is available for download here: B.Haworth_BNHCRC-AFAC Poster-2014

VGI and bushfire preparation in Tasmania – Part 1

Last July I went back to study at the University of Sydney. I’m studying for a PhD in Geography and working with some truly excellent people. My research is centred around Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) and natural disaster management. More specifically I’m looking at the potential use of VGI technologies for fostering community engagement in bushfire preparation. This research, now supported by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC), has lead me to the beautiful state of Tasmania to work in collaboration with the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS), undertaking fieldwork in high bushfire-risk communities across the state.

Key research objectives include determining the present levels of engagement in bushfire preparation, the present levels of engagement with VGI technologies and social media, and assessing the potential role for VGI to play in building bushfire resilience through community engagement. 
Through surveys, questionnaires and interviews I aim to gain insight into the following research questions:

  • What proportion of people currently engages in bushfire preparation?
  • What proportion of people currently feels empowered about their own bushfire management?
  • How do people currently engage with their community?
  • How many people use social media (or other VGI sources) in the community? What tools in particular, and what for?
  • How many people use or would use social media/VGI in relation to bushfire events, and in what ways?
  • Is VGI considered a reliable source for bushfire management?
  • How useful are VGI technologies and social media considered to be for bushfire preparation?

I hope to use this blog to discuss some of the findings of this work in the future, but for now while I am still in Tasmania carrying out the field studies I will just share a few pictures and bits along the way from all the interesting places I’m visiting for this work.

Flying over Tasmania en route to Hobart
Mount Nelson – a suburb in the south of Hobart with many properties on high terrain very close to bushland. The area was significantly impacted by the infamous 1967 fires that devastated southern Tasmania.
Tolmans Hill – a relatively new and small community next to Mount Nelson. This image shows a blackened area where a small fire occurred last week, highlighting the potential danger for people and properties living in areas like this.
Woodbridge – an area again largely impacted by bushfire in the past, Woodbridge to me seemed a highly connected community with many people actively involved in groups to engage fire preparation and local warning strategies, predominantly driven by a few ‘local champions’. This photo was taken looking out over the water from the Peppermint Bay cafe.
Lachlan – a community north of Hobart characterised by properties typically with several acres of land high up in the hills close to bush. The thing that struck me in this area was the number of people living in high risk areas with only one road access. If fires were to block these access roads or damage vital infrastructure, such as wooden bridges, many people could potentially be trapped in place. Considering scenarios like this further highlights to me the importance of preparing for bushfires and having a Bushfire Survival Plan. A good plan may be to leave early, but what if you’re in a situation like mentioned above and there is no way out; if you’re too late to leave, what is your plan B?