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.
There are people I sincerely wanted to thank for their support in various capacities during my PhD. I included some (not all, unfortunately) in the Acknowledgements section of my thesis, but I’m aware only a very tiny number of people in the world will actually read that (basically me plus or minus 1). So, here I paste my acknowledgements, as they appeared in the thesis.
First I wish to acknowledge and pay respect to Aboriginal people past and present as the traditional owners of the land on which I conducted this research, namely the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, whose ancestral lands the University of Sydney is built upon. I also wish to acknowledge the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community as the traditional and original owners, and continuing custodians of the land on which I conducted my fieldwork. As Aboriginal people continue their struggle for equality and justice in a land that was taken from them, I acknowledge many of the central themes of this thesis, including the value of local knowledge, community, sense of place, land management, and geography have been important for and practised by Aboriginal people on this land for some 60,000 years before I began thinking and writing about them.
I wish to sincerely thank Dr Eleanor Bruce as my PhD supervisor, mentor and friend. More than assisting with the practical, technical and theoretical aspects of my research, which has been instrumental, she encourages me, challenges me, treats me with respect and as an equal, provides opportunities, promotes me and my work, and has fostered enormous growth in me as an early career academic. It is immeasurable how much I have learnt from Eleanor and I am extremely grateful for having worked with her during these formative years.
I also thank my associate supervisors, Dr Joshua Whittaker, Associate Professor Kurt Iveson, and Professor Matt Duckham, whose expertise, guidance and encouragement have been beyond valuable for both the work of this thesis and my professional development. I also acknowledge the broader ‘Out of Uniform’ research team for their support.
I acknowledge the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC for providing me with scholarship funding, and I thank them for providing various learning, enriching, networking, and professional and personal development experiences. Lyndsey Wright, Michael Rumsewicz, Nathan Maddock and David Bruce have been especially helpful.
I give sincere thanks to Peter Middleton, the entire Bushfire-Ready Neighbourhoods (BRN) team, and the Tasmania Fire Service for their many forms of support and collaboration in this research. Special mention is given to Lesley King, Suzette Harrison, David Cleaver and Sandra Barber. Working collaboratively with the BRN has shaped my work to be something more meaningful and shaped me to be a more skilled and knowledgeable researcher with a better understanding of the professional and societal context in which my research sits.
There are others not associated with this thesis in an official capacity, but who have contributed significantly nonetheless. Here I wish to thank my officemate (soon to be Dr) Stephanie Duce for her companionship, empathy and encouragement. She is the smartest person I know and I hope she remembers me as her career flourishes. I also thank Dr Caren Cooper, Dr Eloise Biggs and Associate Professor Dale Dominey-Howes for their mentoring and helpful advice.
Perhaps the biggest thank you belongs to the Tasmanian community members and Australian emergency management professionals who participated in my research, either by completing a survey, an interview, or participating in a workshop. If I could name them all without compromising university research ethics, I would, because I am tremendously grateful for their time, patience, and valuable inputs to the research. The worth of local knowledge and the willingness of people to give time to others should never be undervalued.
I thank my friends and especially my housemates for remaining interested and supportive, and for giving me many, many things to enjoy outside of the PhD.
Finally, I give thanks to my family for their love, support and inspiration: Kobe, Latrell, Joe, Tara, Shannon and Jim. I give particular thanks to Dave for his unwavering interest and insightful conversations. And for my Mum, if I am proud of this work and my achievements, that doesn’t compare to how proud I am to be her son. I thank her for allowing me to be everything I am capable of.
To any marginalized individual or group who has ever been underrepresented on a map, or any citizen who has ever had their knowledge undervalued, at any time, in any context, as well as anybody who has never had anything dedicated to them, I dedicate this thesis to you.
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.
Here is a collage that accurately depicts the moment I collected my Special Recognition Award from the Dean of Science, Professor Trevor Hambley, at the School of Geosciences’ awards night 2016. I received the award for voluntary service to the School of Geosciences, including activities such as developing and running GIS and geography workshops for visiting high school students and summer camp for indigenous school students, coordinating and chairing school seminars, volunteering at university open days, and contributing to school culture through initiatives like establishing a weekly school morning tea.
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.
I am currently in Tasmania for the last piece of fieldwork for my PhD research into volunteered geographic information (VGI), community engagement and bushfire preparation. VGI refers to the voluntary engagement of private citizens in the creation of geographic information, predominantly through sources such as social media, smartphones and inexpensive online mapping tools. VGI represents a shift in the ways geographic information is created, shared, used and experienced and this has important implications for various applications of geospatial data, including disaster management where the social practice of VGI is changing the traditional top-down structure of emergency management and information creation and dissemination.
In Tasmania I am running research workshops with the aim to explore how mapping and sharing local knowledge about bushfire with others in their community may foster community members’ engagement in disaster preparation. Key questions I am considering include:
1) Is the social practice of contributing and reviewing VGI engaging for bushfire preparation?
2) Is the local knowledge and understanding gained from the mapping valuable to communities?
3) Does the activity of mapping together increase community connectedness?
4) Is the map itself an effective medium for collating and sharing community bushfire information?
Workshops are being held in four communities, with the first occurring yesterday in Kettering, South West of Hobart. I will post about the other workshops after they happen, but the remainder of this post will focus on the Kettering workshop.
Approximately 20 people turned up to participate in the workshop, sought through engaging local community groups and community fire networks, flyers distributed on noticeboards in Kettering, and sharing through various social media pages, including the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) page. The workshop format included introductions and a short presentation about the research and the day’s activities, a paper mapping activity followed by lunch, and a digital mapping activity before participants completed a 15-minute questionnaire before the end of the workshop. My PhD supervisor Dr Eleanor Bruce from the University of Sydney and Lesley King from the Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods program at TFS assisted in running the workshop.
The paper mapping activity saw participants in groups of 4-5 marking up paper maps with any information they felt was relevant to bushfire preparation in their community. Groups were each given a satellite image, topographic map, community protection plan (an official fire service document that outlines ‘nearby safer places’ and other fire relevant information for that community), blank paper, plastic overlays, and a suite of textas, stickers and other stationary and told to map whatever and however they wanted using those resources.
I found it really interesting and kind of enjoyable to wander around observing and discussing with the groups the different things they were choosing to map and how different groups thought about the same places in different ways. They mapped a whole range of things, including (but not limited to) community assets like the local pub, regions of high fire danger, potential places of refuge, roads that would be inaccessible to fire trucks, their homes and where their neighbourhood
groups were located, what resources were available to help each other prepare, and communication towers. At the end of the exercise groups presented their maps and discussed what they had done with the rest of the participants.
Discussions revealed a number of benefits of the exercise. Some people learned new things about their community in relation to bushfire. Some thought working with others and the
discussions between community members the mapping generated was the most valuable aspect. Some downfalls of the activity that were raised included the difficulty in keeping a map up-to-date and sharing it with their broader community and the challenge of getting the information ‘out’ of the paper map so it can be used in other ways, e.g. for the fire service.
The second activity involved collating the information from each group into a combined web map (while it is a bit limited in functionality, we used the Zeemaps platform for its simplicity and accessibility). Initially I demonstrated the platform and then participants talked about what they wanted to add as a collective group. Participants were given a URL to the map and asked to contribute on their smartphones or tablets live in the workshop. Not many people took this up and instead preferred me to ‘drive’ the mapping. Some even seemed a little intimidated by the technology (this could be related to demographics – a large portion of the group were retirees. This probably also reflects the kind of people more interested in fire preparation, as well as those more likely to volunteer their time for a research workshop). This resulted in a slightly awkward lull in the activity with many people not having anything to do while others were adding their information to the web map – something to reconsider for the next workshops. However a useful discussion still ensued where a range of benefits and challenges were discussed. The web map was seen as better for zooming in and mapping finer detail information at ‘micro’ scales (e.g. who has a chainsaw on their street), for sharing the map more widely and easily, for maintaining the relevance of information, for the convenience of contributing when/wherever people liked, for the ability to include more detailed comments and photos with points, and for the potential for more to be done with the data (e.g. GIS analyses). Some issues raised included map ownership, privacy, computer illiteracy of some community members, and the potential ‘messiness’ of all the data points together.
While I haven’t analysed any results yet, a cursory look at the survey responses revealed most people saw a lot of potential and positive applications for community mapping to aid in bushfire preparation. In contrast to my observations during the activity, most people seemed to prefer and rated the computer mapping as more useful. They understood the experimental nature of the activity and recognised its limitations in the workshop setting but saw potential for web maps to be a highly valuable tool and resource in their community along the lines of the benefits described above. Overall people were genuinely interested and positive about the research and the potential outcomes. Considering this was the first time I had attended a research workshop of this nature, let alone designed, organised and ran it, I was really happy with how it went. I even got the catering pretty right! While a part of me is looking forward to my short career in event management being over in a few weeks, I’m interested to see how the next workshops in different communities compare. I’ll post an update when they’re done!
Recently I was fortunate to attend the 2015 Esri User Conference in San Diego. It was a fantastically large and exciting event attended by over 16,000 people from 130 countries, showcasing broad and powerful applications of GIS. I felt particularly fortunate to be attending as the 2015 Esri Australia Young Scholar. As described previously on this blog (here) I was awarded the prize for work I completed using GIS to look at patterns of graffiti removal in Sydney, which allowed me to make some comments on the effectiveness of rapid-removal policies and the need to recognize diversity in graffiti practices. Winning this award provided me the opportunity to attend an event that I would not have been able to attend otherwise. It was an incredibly interesting, exciting, useful and inspiring experience. And even better, I got to share the experience with Young Scholar Award winners from other countries around the world! Here is a story map of all their interesting winning projects.
The opening plenary in particular resonated with me. Jack Dangermond presented exemplary examples of GIS from around the world and spoke about GIS as a process and a framework to apply geography everywhere. He described geography as the science that integrates all the other sciences, from hydrology, geology and climatology to anthropology and sociology, all resting on the spatial dimension – geography as the science of our world. Geography provides the context and the content that will help us understand and address the big challenges of our world today, he said. He spoke about a vision of “geographic enlightenment” where GIS is waking up the world to the power of geography and making for a better future, particularly in the face of global challenges like environment loss, climate change, and overpopulation.
Given that most events I attend are quite academic research focused (which I also find very useful!), I appreciated the User Conference had a lot of variety in terms of sessions offered. Technical workshops on software applications, including both desktop GIS, like map projection trouble-shooting or python coding courses, and relatively new web GIS tools and mapping applications, such as story maps for presenting and sharing GIS maps or the collector app and Survey123 for collection of data in the field using smartphones, were really useful. I’m genuinely excited to try some of these new tools for my own research and in my teaching at university. The two-day education conference held before the main conference was also really useful, providing interesting and inspiring discussions about how people are teaching GIS and teaching with GIS around the world. Integrating GIS learning and projects with community needs and community projects, or service-learning, was a key theme.
Overall I found my first Esri UC experience super rewarding. I emphasize first because I’m hopeful I’ll have the opportunity to attend again in the future. It was educational, inspiring, and actually just really fun too. I met some really great people and the social events were equally as enjoyable and worthwhile as the main conference. While in sunny California I was also able to experience some of the San Diego sites, including the famous San Diego zoo, beaches, local watering holes, and major league baseball at Petco Park, where the local Padres had a win against the San Francisco giants!
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.
In 2010 I completed a Master of Applied Science (Spatial Information Science) at the University of Sydney. Working with Dr. Eleanor Bruce I produced the thesis entitled ‘Graffiti and Urban Space: A GIS Approach’. The work examined spatial and temporal patterns of graffiti occurrence in the City of Sydney local government area, utilizing both council supplied data on graffiti removal, geocoded and analysed in ArcGIS, and graffiti incidence data collected using a handheld GPS and ArcPad. Cluster analysis was performed to determine graffiti removal hotspots. The research presents graffiti as a diverse urban culture, provides evidence for the ineffectiveness of ‘rapid removal’ and ‘zero tolerance’ approaches to graffiti management, and highlights benefits of a GIS approach.
Graffiti in Surry Hills, Sydney, 2011. Photo: Billy Haworth
The purpose of this project was to employ spatio-temporal analysis techniques within a GIS to test some of the popular claims about the effectiveness of rapid removal graffiti policies. The policy informs that rapid removal will deter graffiti writers and reduce overall quantities of graffiti. However, research has suggested that this approach does not reduce overall graffiti but rather triggers changes in location and form. Findings of my research provide evidence for the latter.
This project demonstrated the value of GIS in spatially assessing diverse phenomena in the urban environment. The project provides important quantitative evidence to complement existing qualitatively derived theories. Previously, quantitative work that had been undertaken in this area focussed almost exclusively on criminology. Significantly, my work extended spatio-temporal analysis of graffiti to examine the broader spatial practice of urban graffiti writing as a diverse cultural phenomenon. The project findings contribute to formulating better informed strategies for graffiti management – an important and relevant task for cities the world over.
Haworth, B., Bruce, E., Iveson, K. (2013). Spatio-temporal analysis of graffiti occurrence in an inner-city urban environment. Applied Geography, 38: 53-63.
Graffiti management often presents policy challenges for municipal authorities. However, the inherent diversity of graffiti culture and its role in defining urban space can be neglected when formulating response strategies. This study investigates spatio-temporal trends in graffiti across inner-city Sydney, New South Wales to support alternative perspectives on graffiti and its role in urban landscapes. Graffiti removal incidence records were geocoded to examine graffiti distribution across the City of Sydney Council Local Government Area over a six-month period. Graffiti removal ‘hotspots’ were identified using spatial cluster analysis and shifts in graffiti activity were examined through trend analysis. Specific sites within the Local Government Area were identified as a focus for repeated graffiti removal activities. Finer spatial scale GPS based mapping for a selected graffiti hotspot area in the suburb of Surry Hills showed diversity in graffiti form. While the rate of return may have decreased in the Surry Hills case study, the overall number of graffiti removal incidents increased. Rapid-removal policies can change the location, form and diversity of graffiti encouraging ‘quick and dirty’ forms of graffiti over more complex design works. Spatio-temporal variability in graffiti occurrence across inner-city Sydney highlights the need to consider graffiti as a diverse urban phenomenon when attempting to understand its occurrence and formulate response strategies.
As well as my PhD research on VGI and bushfire preparation, this yearI’ve been involved with another project working with a diverse group of talented researchers from the Universities of Sydney, Southampton, Western Australia and Auckland, and other regional partners based in the SE Asia region. We’ve been working on the concept of Environmental Livelihood Security (ELS) in the SE Asia and Oceania region, observing a need to explicitly incorporate livelihoods into current water/energy/food-nexus thinking to build resilience to future climate challenges and further enhance capacity for change. Working with individuals from across such diverse backgrounds and geographically spread across the globe presented some challenges, but also vast benefits, including a wealth of expertise and fresh ideas and different perspectives on problems. Our first major task as a group was to review the current literature. Myself and other ‘early career researchers’ from each institution produced this together. Project leads then reviewed and edited before the research group met in Perth in June 2014 for a workshop to discuss. The result is a peer-reviewed white paper published through the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), providing an exceptional amount of background and framing material for the topic of ELS. It’s titled Environmental Livelihood Security in Southeast Asia and Oceania: A Water-Energy-Food-Livelihoods Nexus Approach for Spatially Assessing Change, and you can download it from this link if you want. I’ve provided the executive summary and citation below.
The research team on a fieldtrip during the Perth workshop, June 2014. Photo: Dr Eloise Biggs, Twitter @EllieMBiggs
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY This document addresses the need for explicit inclusion of livelihoods within the environment nexus (water-energy-food security), not only responding to literature gaps but also addressing emerging dialogue from existing nexus consortia. We present the first conceptualization of ‘environmental livelihood security’, which combines the nexus perspective with sustainable livelihoods. The geographical focus of this paper is Southeast Asia and Oceania, a region currently wrought by the impacts of a changing climate. Climate change is the primary external forcing mechanism on the environmental livelihood security of communities in Southeast Asia and Oceania which, therefore, forms the applied crux of this paper. Finally, we provide a primer for using geospatial information to develop a spatial framework to enable geographical assessment of environmental livelihood security across the region. We conclude by linking the value of this research to ongoing sustainable development discussions, and for influencing policy agendas. The paper is split into three main parts: Part I: The Environment of Southeast Asia and Oceania The first part of this paper provides background environmental information to introduce the geography of Southeast Asia and Oceania and the importance of sustainable livelihoods and water-energy-food security in the region. The first component describes the state of the environment including details on climate, climate change and important environmental impacts such as sea-level rise, pollution, and changes in extreme events. The next section investigates vulnerabilities and pressures – social, cultural, political and environmental – on the geographical system, with clear reference to climate adaptation and socio-ecological resilience. Finally, water, energy and food securities are discussed in detail, providing theoretical grounding and an applied link to climate change and issues of governance. Part II: Conceptualizing ‘Environmental Livelihood Security’ Having described both the natural and human environmental systems in Part I, this part provides a full conceptualization of what we term ‘Environmental Livelihood Security’. A substantive literature review is provided to bring together the theory of environmental security with sustainable livelihoods, in order to introduce environmental livelihood security as a means of conceptualizing livelihoods within the nexus. Multiple facets of governance provide influential material and provide synergy to the theory discussed in Part I. Part III: Geospatial Information for Assessing Environmental Livelihood Security in Southeast Asia and Oceania The final part of this paper explores the potential for using quantitative and qualitative geospatial information to monitor the environment and livelihoods in Southeast Asia and Oceania. This provides a primer for enabling measurement of environmental livelihood security in the region. Potential indicators and available datasets for monitoring water-energy-food security, the vulnerabilities and pressures, and toolkits for sustainable livelihoods are discussed. Biggs, E. M.; Boruff, B.; Bruce, E.; Duncan, J. M. A.; Haworth, B.; Duce, S.; Horsley, J.; Curnow, J.; Neef, A.; McNeill, K.; Pauli, N.; Van Ogtrop, F.; Imanari, Y. 2014. Environmental livelihood security in Southeast Asia and Oceania: a water-energy-food-livelihoods nexus approach for spatially assessing change. White paper. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute (IWMI). 114p. doi: 10.5337/2014.231
Last July I went back to study at the University of Sydney. I’m studying for a PhD in Geography and working with some truly excellent people. My research is centred around Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) and natural disaster management. More specifically I’m looking at the potential use of VGI technologies for fostering community engagement in bushfire preparation. This research, now supported by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC), has lead me to the beautiful state of Tasmania to work in collaboration with the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS), undertaking fieldwork in high bushfire-risk communities across the state.
Key research objectives include determining the present levels of engagement in bushfire preparation, the present levels of engagement with VGI technologies and social media, and assessing the potential role for VGI to play in building bushfire resilience through community engagement. Through surveys, questionnaires and interviews I aim to gain insight into the following research questions:
What proportion of people currently engages in bushfire preparation?
What proportion of people currently feels empowered about their own bushfire management?
How do people currently engage with their community?
How many people use social media (or other VGI sources) in the community? What tools in particular, and what for?
How many people use or would use social media/VGI in relation to bushfire events, and in what ways?
Is VGI considered a reliable source for bushfire management?
How useful are VGI technologies and social media considered to be for bushfire preparation?
I hope to use this blog to discuss some of the findings of this work in the future, but for now while I am still in Tasmania carrying out the field studies I will just share a few pictures and bits along the way from all the interesting places I’m visiting for this work.
Flying over Tasmania en route to Hobart
Mount Nelson – a suburb in the south of Hobart with many properties on high terrain very close to bushland. The area was significantly impacted by the infamous 1967 fires that devastated southern Tasmania.
Tolmans Hill – a relatively new and small community next to Mount Nelson. This image shows a blackened area where a small fire occurred last week, highlighting the potential danger for people and properties living in areas like this.
Woodbridge – an area again largely impacted by bushfire in the past, Woodbridge to me seemed a highly connected community with many people actively involved in groups to engage fire preparation and local warning strategies, predominantly driven by a few ‘local champions’. This photo was taken looking out over the water from the Peppermint Bay cafe.
Lachlan – a community north of Hobart characterised by properties typically with several acres of land high up in the hills close to bush. The thing that struck me in this area was the number of people living in high risk areas with only one road access. If fires were to block these access roads or damage vital infrastructure, such as wooden bridges, many people could potentially be trapped in place. Considering scenarios like this further highlights to me the importance of preparing for bushfires and having a Bushfire Survival Plan. A good plan may be to leave early, but what if you’re in a situation like mentioned above and there is no way out; if you’re too late to leave, what is your plan B?