In the rush to develop new disaster mitigation tools, it is important to consider whether they will help or harm the people most vulnerable in a disaster.
Who is vulnerable?
Extreme natural events, such as earthquakes and bushfires, are not considered disasters until vulnerable people are exposed to the hazard.
To determine people’s level of vulnerability we need to know:
the level of individual and community exposure to a physical threat
their access to resources that affect their capacity to cope when threats materialise.
Some groups in society will be more vulnerable to disaster than others. This includes people with immobility issues, caring roles, or limited access to resources such as money, information or support networks.
When disaster strikes, the pressure on some groups is often magnified.
The devastating scenes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017 revealed the vulnerability of children in such disasters.
Unfortunately, emergency management can exacerbate the vulnerability of marginalised groups. For example, a US study last year showed that in the years after disasters, wealth increased for white people and declined for people of colour. The authors suggest this is linked to inequitable distribution of emergency and redevelopment aid.
We need to ask: do new forms of disaster response help everyone in a community, or do they reproduce existing power imbalances?
Unequal access to digital technologies
Research has assessed the “techno-optimism” – a belief that technologies will solve our problems – associated with people using online tools to share information for disaster management.
These technologies inherently discriminate if access to them discriminates.
In Australia, the digital divide remains largely unchanged in recent years. In 2016-17 nearly 1.3 million households had no internet connection.
Lower digital inclusion is seen in already vulnerable groups, including the unemployed, migrants and the elderly.
Global internet penetration rates show uneven access between economically poorer parts of the world, such as Africa and Asia, and wealthier Western regions.
Representations of communities are skewed on the internet. Particular groups participate with varying degrees on social media and in crowdsourcing activities. For example, some ethnic minorities have poorer internet access than other groups even in the same country.
Unequal participation means those who can participate may become further empowered, with more access to information and resources. As a result, gaps between privileged and marginalised people grow wider.
For example, local Kreyòl-speaking Haitians from poorer neighbourhoods contributed information via SMS for use on crowdsourced maps during the 2010 Haiti earthquake response.
But the information was translated and mapped in English for Western humanitarians. As they didn’t speak English, vulnerable Haitians were further marginalised by being unable to directly use and benefit from maps resulting from their own contributions.
Any power imbalances that come from unequal online participation are pertinent to disaster risk reduction. They can amplify community tensions, social divides and marginalisation, and exacerbate vulnerability and risk.
With greater access to the benefits of online tools, and improved representation of diverse and marginalised people, we can better understand societies and reduce disaster impacts.
We must remain acutely aware of digital divides and participation biases. We must continually consider how these technologies can better include, value and elevate marginalised groups.
High quality and up-to-date maps and geographic information at appropriate spatial scales are vital for effectively preparing for and responding to disasters and humanitarian crises. Risk reduction activities, resource and service delivery, rescue and emergency care, information flows and risk communication, impact assessments and disaster recovery are all dependent on spatial information. In some parts of the world national/government maps, and even Google maps, are inadequate or incomplete, and alternative maps are required.
Public participation in mapping for disaster response and humanitarian crises has increased significantly in the last decade. Sometimes referred to as digital humanitarianism or digital volunteering, or more broadly volunteered geographic information (VGI), the practices of private citizens contributing geographic information for crisis management has been facilitated by technological advancements such as broadband internet and Web 2.0, cloud storage, GPS and smartphones.
Despite limitations, including digital divides and unequal online participation, and data quality concerns, among others, VGI has provided highly useful maps and geographic information to aid in a variety of humanitarian crises, with the use of OpenStreetMap in response to earthquakes in Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015) as key examples.
What is a mapathon?
OpenStreetMap (OSM) is an online, crowdsourced mapping platform – a bit like Google Maps but created by people like you! Volunteers work independently or collaboratively to add and edit content on the global digital map.
A mapathon is a bit like a ‘mapping party’, whereby people come together to complete a whole load of OSM mapping in a relatively short period of time. The idea being that with everyone working together in just a few hours we can make a BIG contribution! Importantly, mapathons are usually accompanied by free pizza and other fun snacks for the volunteers!
The HCRI humanitarian mapathon
In March 2019 we held our annual mapathon in the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI), University of Manchester. With colleagues in Geography, we were aiming to contribute to an ongoing project coordinated by Dr Jonny Huck seeking to improve delivery of healthcare and prosthetic limbs to people who were mutilated during conflict in North Uganda. The mapping involved tracing basic information, such as people’s homes, on satellite photographs.
Around 40 students, academic and support staff from HCRI and across the university volunteered to contribute ~20,000 features (roads, huts, buildings etc) to the poorly mapped region of Acholi in Uganda (Wow!). This open source mapping and data will directly help in reaching people with urgently needed healthcare.
Mapping is also valuable to volunteers
“The mapathon was a great way to engage with people who have varying levels of map/geographic information systems (GIS) experience. The process of mapping roads, houses, tracks, buildings etc was very simple. The handouts of how to complete the tasks meant that it was straightforward and you constantly have a source to refer back to. The project as a whole meant that the time I gave felt worthwhile and like I was really making a difference to medical logistic teams in Uganda. I would highly recommend anyone to come along to the next event and get involved; it’s a great way to spend a couple of hours.” – Rach, HCRI MSc student.
“I think it was particularly useful for students of GIS and disasters, in which we critically analysed VGI to participate in the very digital volunteerism we were analysing. It was a more visceral and tangible demonstration of the quirks of geographic information that we were discussing in class (e.g. map projections) even if these particular quirks were relatively trivial. It was nice to bring together people who I’d never seen before across the school and get a feel for what a larger group VGI volunteering effort looks like. I think a lot of people got a fair bit out of it, and I left the event feeling good. The software is super simple and easy to learn and having a few skilled people there to help when problems arose was enough to get everybody up and running.”
– Mike, HCRI MSc student.
YOU can contribute too!
You don’t need any prior mapping experience, just a computer and an internet connection, and you can map anytime. Visit http://huckathon.org/ to learn more about the North Uganda project and start mapping! Each feature you add to the map could mean a new limb for someone who has been injured by conflict. Better still; why not host your own mapathon?!
It was a useful task because science communication and research dissemination are important to me, particularly to areas outside the world of academic journals, and a 2-page research summary can be more effective for reaching emergency management practices, policy makers, or even the general public. It can also be easily shared and re-shared on social media to even wider audiences.
It was also a challenging task though, as my PhD research is still relatively fresh, it was difficult to choose just a few *key* findings to share. “But it’s all such excellent work! Why wouldn’t everybody want to read every word!?” Hardly :p 😉
That’s not entirely true. I did (and do) have a pretty clear idea of what my key major findings are, and so I should having only recently completed the work and distilled it into presentations and journal articles. Nevertheless, it was a challenge to summarize large volumes of diverse content into very, very tight word limits. Its a challenge I highly recommend others take up, not only to increase the accessibility of your work, but it also helped me further clarify for myself what exactly are the important messages from my broader research, and, importantly, why. For me, these vary depending on context and audience, and they may for others too.
Hazard Note 28 covers my PhD research findings into the role of volunteered geographic information in fostering community engagement in disaster risk reduction. In recent years, information from community members contributed online has proved highly useful in emergencies. Information sharing activities by private citizens using social media, smartphones, and web mapping tools have been termed volunteered geographic information (VGI), or digital volunteering. This research examined the potential role of VGI in fostering community engagement in bushfire preparation.
There are many opportunities, challenges and implications of VGI in emergency management, much broader than just bushfire. Findings show that VGI is more than just technology – it is about people sharing their knowledge and mapping collaboratively as a social practice. It presents opportunities for citizen empowerment in line with shared responsibility, but also challenges with power moving away from the traditional command and control of emergency services.
This research provides a clearer path for emergency service agencies to best-utilise these technologies for and with communities, helping to increase volunteering sustainability, community engagement and disaster resilience.
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. 🙂
Receiving the award from BNHCRC CEO Richard Thornton
And here is a couple of stills of me presenting taken from a video summary of the conference.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
This post is a summary of a paper I had published recently in Geography Compass. The paper is titled A Review of Volunteered Geographic Information for Disaster Management and is co-authored with Dr Eleanor Bruce from the University of Sydney. Here is the citation and link to the full text article:
VGI in disaster management – image courtesy of Billy Haworth
The immediacy of locational information requirements and importance of data currency for natural disaster events highlights the value of volunteered geographic information (VGI) in all stages of disaster management, including prevention, preparation, response, and recovery. The practice of private citizens generating online geospatial data presents new opportunities for the creation and dissemination of disaster-related geographic data from a dense network of intelligent observers. VGI technologies enable rapid sharing of diverse geographic information for disaster management at a fraction of the resource costs associated with traditional data collection and dissemination, but they also present new challenges. These include a lack of data quality assurance and issues surrounding data management, liability, security, and the digital divide. There is a growing need for researchers to explore and understand the implications of these data and data practices for disaster management. In this article, we review the current state of knowledge in this emerging field and present recommendations for future research. Significantly, we note further research is warranted in the pre event phases of disaster management, where VGI may present an opportunity to connect and engage individuals in disaster preparation and strengthen community resilience to potential disaster events. Our investigation of VGI for disaster management provides broader insight into key challenges and impacts of VGI on geospatial data practices and the wider field of geographical science.
Recent disaster events remind us of the importance of geospatial data and the need for timely and reliable communication in all aspects of disaster management, including prevention, preparation, response and recovery (PPRR). Volunteered geographic information (VGI) provides new opportunities for citizens to create and share geographic information for disaster management. VGI refers to practices of people from the general public creating and sharing their own geographic information, enabled by particular technological advancements, including the growth of Web 2.0, GPS, broadband communication, cloud storage, and mobile devices such as smartphones (see Goodchild 2007).
VGI contributions in disaster management may involve something as simple as somebody posting a relevant photo on social media or it may involve more complex activities, such as the hundreds of volunteers from across the world who worked together using OpenStreetMap to contribute online spatial information for what became the most comprehensive mapping available following the 2010 Haiti earthquake (see Meier 2012).
“A visualisation of the response to the earthquake by the OpenStreetMap community. Within 12 hours the white flashes indicate edits to the map (generally by tracing satellite/aerial photography). Over the following days a large number of additions to the map are made with many roads (green primary, red secondary) added. Also many other features were added such as the blue glowing refugee camps that emerge.” Read more – itoworld.blogspot.com/2010/02/ito-world-at-ted-2010-project-haiti.html
The emergence of VGI has important implications for both individuals and authorities in disaster management, representing numerous opportunities but also significant challenges. In this article we categorize these as being broadly related to data collection and dissemination, data quality and security, data management, and empowerment.
Data Collection and Dissemination
With VGI, the speed and volume of data creation and dissemination has increased dramatically. Information can now be communicated from authorities to communities for disaster management at a fraction of the cost of traditional means of communication. Members of the public can also now create, share, map and communicate information with authorities and with each other in more diverse ways, even if they are not located at the disaster location. As anybody with technology access is now able to contribute, creating disaster related geographic information is no longer just for experts.
The Queensland floods of 2010/2011 saw social media play a critical role, with high numbers of people flooding sites like Facebook and Twitter to share disaster-related information (see Bird, Ling & Haynes 2012). Here, social media facilitated fast and broad information mobility. Posts were re-shared widely, demonstrating the power of social media to promote and propagate messages. This was particularly true for messages of support, but the same mechanisms can also work to spread misinformation or false content.
Data Quality and Security
Data from private citizens with varying agendas and experience often have quality issues. Studies have reported on important issues of quality control, misinformation, spurious or fraudulent postings, duplicate and doctored images, and the lack of ‘right’ information for disaster relief (see McDougall 2011, Ostermann & Spinsanti 2011). Further, it is often difficult to discern the credibility of online sources. Individual’s physical and online security may be compromised by utilising low-quality VGI. The nature of VGI is that it is often made openly available to the general public. Data of this nature may be particularly compromising during a disaster event, especially when those affected are at their most vulnerable and privacy may be less of a priority than in ‘normal’ circumstances (see Crawford & Finn 2014). For example, a geotagged image of a disaster-impacted property provides useful information to emergency authorities if shared through social media, but that same information about the location of a vulnerable and potentially vacant property may also be available to those with malicious intent. Individuals, authorities and humanitarians should be particularly cautious when using VGI provided through social media (Goolsby 2013), and it should not be assumed that everybody is well informed to manage their own privacy settings online (Crawford & Finn 2014).
Various lines of evidence have been proposed for why the quality of VGI can approach the standards of authoritative data (see Goodchild & Glennon 2010). For example, sites like Wikipedia are proof that crowdsourcing is an effective way to remove errors with large numbers of people reading and verifying information. But how many people are needed for this to be true? And how quickly can information be verified in this way during fast paced emergencies? By its nature user generated content is broadly incomplete, and despite very large volumes of data, bias is not removed. A second example is that advances in positional technology, such as improved GPS in mobile devices, and the increase in familiarity of the public with things like social media, the internet, maps and smartphones means data quality is increased. But this provides no guarantee users consistently operate devices correctly or that they are aware when the technology is not functioning properly. Advances in technology do not necessarily eliminate human error. As researchers continue to seek new applications for these data, innovative methods are needed for empirical validation of the quality and credibility of VGI.
Data from the general public presents a number of challenges for data management which are particularly relevant to disaster management. The sheer volume of information provided through VGI is a current obstacle to its efficient use in emergency management, highlighting the need for effective methods to mine, filter, verify, and summarise these data and data sources to ensure credible and relevant content. Various researchers are exploring ways to address this, such as methods to automatically identify relevant key words in Twitter data (Ostermann & Spinsanti 2011). Traditionally, spatial data infrastructures‘ (SDIs) top-down model of supporting digital data access, storage, and sharing is unlike the bottom-up approach on which VGI is established. VGI challenges the assumption that formal organizations are the producers of geospatial information and users are the passive recipients (see Budhathoki, Bruce & Nedovic-Budic 2008). For disaster management, opportunity exists for VGI to augment existing SDIs, providing valuable localised and contextual information for planning decisions and encouraging information flow between communities and authorities.
Due to the higher level of inherent risk to life and property in disaster management decision-making, liability concerns may deter organizations from integrating VGI into their datasets (Shanley, Burns, Bastian & Robson 2013). As websites have a global reach and laws vary widely, liability risks in and across foreign jurisdictions need consideration. VGI site operators, users, and contributors must all have some awareness of the legal and ethical issues that may be triggered by their activities, including issues of intellectual property, liability for faulty information, and defamation (Scassa 2013). Empowerment Through VGI
Empowerment is described as an individual’s capacity to have control over their personal affairs and confront hazard issues while receiving the necessary emergency management support (Bird, Ling & Haynes 2012). It has been argued that VGI empowers individuals to georegister their observations, transmit them through the internet and translate them into readily understood maps and reports (Goodchild & Glennon 2010). But does this indicate VGI can enable individuals to achieve connectedness, more control, and empowerment in disaster management? While VGI may empower some citizens to contribute and engage in disaster management, it also acts to marginalize others. If we consider the digital divide, what is the role of citizens with limiting socio-economic circumstances or those in parts of the world without access to these ‘empowering’ technologies? VGI cannot represent ‘the everybody’ and in fact favours ‘the privileged’, or those with money, access, and time to utilize the technology (see Haklay 2013).
For those that are ‘included’, the use of geospatial data from the crowd has been shown to enhance existing inequalities (see Crawford & Finn 2014). Local information contributed during the 2010 Haiti earthquake crisis was translated into English and subsequently mapped and reported in English, preventing the Kreyòl speakers who messaged for help from benefiting from their own data, thus reproducing unequal power relations between the poor Haitians and the rich who acted on the information (as reported in Crawford & Finn 2014).
Future Research Recommendations
This review highlighted a number of gaps in current academic research around VGI and disaster management. It is recommended that future research consider:
best practices for emergency management agencies to support digital volunteers, and for digital volunteers to support traditional and authoritative disaster management practices
the role of different types of VGI platforms during disasters and comparisons between different types of disasters and whether or not the disaster type has any influence on VGI usage
improving data validation and automatic report summation
more appropriate use of VGI technologies, including geotags (adding location information to online data) and effective hashtags for summarising social media data
VGI in the preparation and prevention phases of disaster management. This review shows that contemporary research on the role of VGI in disaster management predominantly focuses on the response phase of the PPRR cycle. Directing increased attention to the pre-disaster phases may present an opportunity for VGI to foster community engagement and empower individuals to be more directly involved in risk reduction practices.
There is a need for further research on the technical and critical dimensions of VGI and for human geographers to engage with GIScientists to comprehend the implications of these data and data practices for citizens, traditional methods of disaster management, and geography as a discipline more broadly.
Recently I attended the Association of American Geographers 2015 annual meeting in Chicago, IL, along with several thousand other “geographers” from around the world. Being the largest academic geography conference in the world, even navigating the program was a little overwhelming with over 6000 items, let alone the event itself. But that volume of presenters also means a lot of interesting research, and this post attempts to document some of that. I won’t be listing everything I experienced, but rather just summarising some of my highlights from the week.
Tuesday April 21
First up on the first day was my own presentation, as part of the session Advances in Geospatial Emergency Management, organised by Professor Matt Duckham at the University of Melbourne (one of my associate supervisors) and Professor Mark Horner at Florida State University.
My paper, Engaging Communities in Disaster Risk Reduction through Volunteered Geographic Information: A case study of bushfires (wildfires) in Tasmania, Australia, was really a broad overview of my PhD research. The paper described how VGI represents shifts in the way geospatial information is produced, shared, used, and experienced, resulting in changes to social practices, top-down approaches to mapping and information dissemination, and the broader disciplines of geography and GIScience, with significant implications for various applications, including emergency management. This research considers the potential of VGI to transform disaster management by thinking about VGI as a social practice and not simply a type of information. This leads to thinking about change in cultural practices in emergency management away from authoritative top-down systems. Giving power to citizens through VGI aids in sustaining community involvement in disaster management, changing behaviours, and ultimately increasing disaster resilience. The paper called for a need to critically assess the role of VGI in the important disaster management phase of preparedness by emphasizing the majority of research in this field to date has only considered disaster response. The research presented focused on VGI for increasing bushfire preparation engagement in Tasmania, outlining key research methods, such as community surveys, interviews with emergency management professionals, and community participatory mapping workshops, along with some preliminary findings.
In the same session I found the impromptu presentation by Matt Duckham on some of the work from his RISER (Resilient Information Systems for Emergency Response) project very interesting. Matt argued that in a time of increased looking to social media for crowdsourced information in disaster management, there are other sources of information from that crowd that are both highly useful and sometimes perhaps more reliable. He noted that in the event of bushfire actually finding the exact location of the fire can be a real challenge, and demonstrated a model that predicted fire locations using crowdsourced data in the form of calls to the emergency services with impressive accuracy. There is a special journal issue in ‘Computers, Environment & Urban Systems’ calling for papers that accompanies this session. More details and submission information can be found here.
Later in the day the panel session, CyberGIS symposium: frontiers of Big Data and urban informatics, chaired by Vonu Thakuriah of the Urban Big Data Centre, raised some interesting questions around the benefits and challenges of big data, researching with big data and theory versus data driven models, privacy, the aggregation of data and industry ownership, and democratization and the notion of an open data economy.
Wednesday April 22
In the morning session Analysing resilience through disaster response, risk perception and risk communication,research in Portugal showed emergency authorities to be under-prepared for ‘lower risk’ emergencies, such as hail and lightning strikes (as opposed to floods, earthquakes etc), with significant negative implications for affected communities. PhD research modelling the coverage and response times of fire services in a province of Ghana was presented, using GIS to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of existing systems while trying to predict where new fire stations should be most strategically positioned to best serve the communities in the area. What was striking in this paper to me was the difficulties associated with obtaining data in particular countries in the world, such as Ghana. The concept of tipping points in resilience theory was described by Rafael Calderón-Contreras,where at a particular point a system will either cope with stress and remain the same or change to a new state. Resilience, being ‘ready’ for disaster, and failures of authorities were common themes in this session.
BikeMaps has citizens contribute their local cycling knowledge (hazards, theft, accidents, near-misses etc) and then analyses and visualizes the data with the aim to make biking safer. The project seems highly useful and is gaining interest in places all over the world. They’ve employed some pretty fun engagement strategies, with my favourite being placing BikeMaps branded drink bottles on 500 parked bikes across the city for unsuspecting cyclists to find when they return to their bikes (information on the project and how to contribute is included inside the bottle).
The Vespucci reunion – Photo credit Cheli Cressell
I attended an Esri workshop on teaching Web GIS. The workshop provided a guide for teaching Web GIS in classrooms. It was interesting and useful in thinking about my current teaching as a GIS tutor and for when I may be writing courses myself one day. But it was also just really interesting for myself to be exposed to a whole range of new platforms and possibilities for GIS mapping provided through Esri and ArcGIS online that I had never really explored before. Things like making interactive web maps, custom and mobile applications, easy ways for the public to contribute volunteered geographic information, and the general simplicity and quality of some of the online tools. I started to rethink how I make my maps now and got pretty excited about revisiting some of my past projects with these new tools, as well as what new projects could be possible. Really cool!
The panel session New Directions in Mapping: Open Source, Crowd-sourcing and “Big Data” chaired by Matthew Zookraised some interesting debates. How do we define ‘open’ and is it the same in theory and implementation? What implications might an increase in the ubiquity of mapping and the use of passive data have for expert geography and expert map-makers? What about those citizens not represented in the ‘crowd’? Are the gaps in crowd data more in content than in space? Probably both. Those with the loudest voices have their issues heard more (and therefore their content mapped) excluding ‘smaller’ problems (smaller in terms of voice, not importance), and there are gaps in space, E.g. how does the crowd map private land? What does opting-in mean when you can’t use a service unless you agree to terms of service? Opting-in implies there should be more control over choice than that doesn’t it? Will people opting-out become an issue for applications relying on crowd data?
How do crowd data and authoritative data compare on quality? It was argued in the panel that all data has issues, it’s just that this is recognised and accepted in crowd data.
Friday April 24 Friday was mostly taken up by sessions run by Muki Haklay around motivation and enthusiasm in citizen science, and around OpenStreetMap studies (the online public mapping platform recently celebrated it’s 10th Birthday). Britta Rickerspoke about the use of drones for motivating students into science work. Drones bridge the gap between the imagery needed for science over smaller spatial scales and the spatial and temporal limitations of pubic satellite data. People seem genuinely excited by drones, but we need to also remember why are we using them (why is a drone needed for the research objective etc). I wondered if the increased engagement with the technology also extended to increased quality of learning for the students – a point I think relevant to my work on exploring the use of VGI technologies for increasing community engagement in bushfire preparation. In a project on conservation and hunting lion fish in the Caribbean, Brittany Davis then spoke about balancing participant’s enthusiasm to hunt the animal for recreation with enthusiasm to participate in the science with collection of accurate and useful data and the overall aim of conservation. For many in this study it seemed the motivation for participating was the access for them to kill the fish, not the important data collection.
Muki Haklay gave a talk on OpenStreetMap, thinking about how it relates to VGI and to citizen science. He has provided the slides from his talk here. I thought it was very thought provoking and I will end this post with a few points I took away from his talk:
Academics needs to be a “critical friend” to projects like OpenStreetMap, they need to be realistic about projects, and they need to learn from each other
Projects like OpenStreetMap and other VGI or citizen science projects are not just about the data – they are a social practice
In order to best understand you need to do the project yourself, not just study from the outside – participatory research
In regards to open research, even if your work can’t be in an open access journal, you can still make it accessible and visible through other means, such as by posting a summary on a blog.
Muki also showed a video (below) made to portray some of the research associated with COST Energic around VGI and indigenous communities. I won’t describe the video too much as you can just watch for yourself if you wish. But I will say it’s a nice video with some very interesting work and I recommend giving it a look.
And so that was some of my highlights of the AAG 2015. Overall I found the experience very rewarding. Being from Australia where much of the research I’m interested in is not so big, particularly around emerging geospatial technologies for community engagement in science, new mapping directions and ‘big data’, and more generally VGI and citizen science studies, meant the conference was particularly giving for me with a vast amount of research being presented in these fields. For emergency management it was somewhat disappointing and encouraging at the same time to see researchers all over the world are grappling the same kinds of questions and challenges in disaster management, namely around resilience building and tensions between community activities, emergent technological solutions, and traditional authoritative emergency management practices. I had my first experience presenting my work internationally, I learnt about a lot of interesting projects, and I fostered existing research connections and made some new ones. What’s more, I got to experience the fantastic city of Chicago! I may have a sore neck from looking up at all the beautiful big buildings, but that’s okay, because the late night jazz, deep dish pizza and seeing the Chicago Bulls win in the NBA playoffs all make up for that! Now, here is a picture of me with the bean:
Self portrait with Cloud Gate in Millennium Park, Chicago.
The Water Services Sector Group’s Social Media Conference was recently held in Sydney and I had the pleasure of attending. With a focus on crisis management and disaster response, a number of key speakers from various parts of the world shared their insights and experiences in the growing field of social media, which all agreed is now an undeniably important component of modern society. Melanie Irons spoke of the pivotal role of social media in mobilising a community through her Facebook page in response to the 2013 Tasmania bushfires. Suzanne Bernier used examples such as the ‘Yes we can’ Obama campaign and ‘Domino’s Pizza Scandal’ YouTube videos to illustrate the role of social media in shaping the reputation of individuals and organizations, demonstrating the impact social media use can have to define, destroy, or strengthen during crisis scenarios. Caroline Milligandescribed the concept of a ‘Virtual Operations Support Team’ with key events such as the London 2012 Olympics or Hurricane Sandy having much of their social media crisis preparation and response performed virtually by her team based in New Zealand. And Charlie Hawkinsdemonstrated some of the latest social media harnessing and visualization tools developed by the CSIRO. While shortcomings were noted, such as the need for report verification, rumour control and negative posts, the overall consensus was the positive attributes of social media use in crisis management, such as the facilitation of coordination and collaboration, speed of information transfer, bi-directional communication and individual empowerment, far outweighed the negative. The message of the day was clear: social media is here to stay. It needs to be incorporated into emergency management strategies and policy in order to foster the most effective collaboration between connected communities and official information sources. The general public now expect authorities and organizations to be active on social media. How organizations respond to this expectation and how they conduct themselves by involving (or not involving) themselves in social media conversations can directly impact their perceived credibility and overall effectiveness both in disaster situations, and in public more broadly.