Australia — Using geographic information data, volunteers around the world were pinpointing buildings destroyed by the Sampson Flat bushfires days before damage assessors could access the site.
Within 12 hours of the bushfire starting, two satellites were making regular passes over the area and providing detailed photographs of the fire ground.
Maps were then interlaced with layers of information from the photographs to provide interested agencies with up-to-date details.
Staff could not safely travel through the area until days later, explained manager Gary Maguire from the Department for Communities and Social Inclusion (DCSI).
“We have been looking at all data sets that have been spread across government and also some parts of non-for-profit and bringing it [all] together,” Mr Maguire said.
Global crowd sourcing volunteers help find damaged buildings
More than 3,500 “geo-geeks” from around the world logged on to a layer of the map created by Tomnod to begin marking items thought to be remnants of assets.
Volunteers were able to match a pre-fire map with the latest satellite images and determine areas where buildings had been destroyed or badly damaged.
Mr Maguire said crowd-sourced data was added to property information, schools and infrastructure locations and ground data gathered from local government agencies to provide a detailed multi-agency map stored and accessed from one location.
Online maps were also created to plot the growing footprint of the bushfire and display ready reserves of people willing to help during the fires.
“Within 12 hours the DCSI received information that these were the buildings the crowd had identified as being destroyed,” Mr Maguire said.
Data was then matched with reports from ground crews to see if any areas may have been missed or were inaccessible.
Mr Maguire said although the technology had been around for a few years and had been used in natural disasters and the search for Malaysia Airlines MH370, its use in the Sampson Flat fires was innovative for the area.
“When you add it all up, you can’t really employ people for those hours to do the same work,” he said.
Information collected before it was safe to send personnel in
Mr Maguire said one of the greatest benefits of the project was the ability to locate potentially destroyed houses days before assessors were allowed onto the fire grounds.
“They put it [the fires] up on their campaign site and within 12 hours, we had an image of what people around the world were looking at and giving feedback on,” he said.
Mr Maguire said most of the volunteers accessing the site had a background in geosciences, but anyone could log in and help out.
Over the following months the data base will be added to in the hope of identifying gaps in recovery processes.
It would also reveal which parts of the community were showing resilience and which may require additional help in the future.
“It’s not just seeing an Excel spreadsheet anymore, it’s seeing where [the damage] is on the ground and the statistics that go with it,” Mr Maguire said.
“The great thing about is, all of this technology is available on your tablet, phone or desktop so no-one is locked down to the office they can use it wherever they like.”