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.

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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.

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).