There ain't no rules around here! We're trying to accomplish something!

Australian bush fires and data portability

In Policy, Technology on February 10, 2009 at 6:25 pm

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Google Australia has created a flash map of the fires currently devastating southeast Australia, with fire locations and status updates. Green areas are safe; red means fires are still in progress. These are the worst fires in Australia’s history and what’s particularly scary is that they may have been set deliberately. More than 100 are reported to have lost their lives.

Some food for thought: Googler Paula Fox was able to provide the flash map because the Victoria Fire Department supports the open standard RSS. (RSS is a standardized data format for frequently updated information, designed to be read on many kinds of programs.) But to be useful for visualization, fire data needs geographical information; there exist adaptations such as GeoRSS to do this, but the fire department didn’t have any such thing.

From technologist Elias Bizannes:

1) If you output data, output it in some standard structured format (like RSS, KML, etc).
2) If you want that data to be useful for visualisation, include both time and geographic (latitude/longitude information). Otherwise you’re hindering the public’s ability to use it.
3) Let the public use your data. The Google team spent some time to ensure they were not violating anything by using this data. Websites should be clearer about their rights of usage to enable mashers to work without fear
4) Extend the standards. It would have helped a lot of the CFA site extended their RSS with some custom elements (in their own namespace), for the structured data about the fires. Like for example Get the hell out of here.
5) Having all the Fire Department’s using the same standards would have make a world of difference – build the mashup using one method and it can be immediately useful for future uses.

Natural disaster response needs data, and good data sharing protocols. US agencies aren’t always so good at that. During Katrina, it was the volunteer database Katrinalist that helped people find survivor information. But FEMA’s models were not made available in a way that would allow first responders to act quickly. We need to work on that.

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