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.

‘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’.

Mapping Local Food Growing in London

More and more people in cities are seeking ways to acquire good quality, sustainably sourced food without breaking the bank.  In recent years a popular alternative in London to relying on supermarket food has been urban agriculture, or ‘food gardening’. A few years ago Mikey Tomkins, researcher on food growing, was inspired by the local food growing that was already happening in his local borough, as well as the potential space he saw for even more food growth, to produce the ‘Edible Map’ of Hackney. The map highlights everything from urban space for short and long session veg and fruit trees to compost and worm farms. Mushrooms are even grown in garages and bees kept for honey on rooftops.

The Edible Map isn’t just a list of place markers, it tells stories of the local community, it allows residents to assess their own local food growth, and it encourages others to join in. One of the most encouraging things about this initiative is that the maps are infinitely changing and growing, and the potential for transfer to other areas is great. And in fact it’s already spreading. Mikey ran tours through Hackney with his Edible Map, educating people of the importance and potential for local food growth. Today Edible Maps are also available for Surrey Street in Croyden, and Elephant & Castle in south London. The Royal Geographical Society in London has also collaborated with Tomkins to add a walk through Hackney using the Edible Map to their Discovering Britain walks series, available to anyone for free via their website. The maps are interactive, fun, and informative, and a positive step for food sustainability, quality and affordability in our cities.

The interactive Edible Map is here.

The Royal Geographical Society walk is here.

This post originally appeared on urban culture and trends blog Trending City.

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