It’s quite surreal living about an hour’s drive away from most of the recent bushfire activity. The reality of it all hit home last night when some good friends of ours were forced to flee their home in Belgrave, about 35kms from Melbourne, to avoid fires threatening the Dandenong Ranges and spend the night with us in the suburbs. Much of this nightmare was caused by the insanity of arsonists whose work was amplified by a combination of record-breaking heat waves and years of drought made worse by the onward march of climate change. We continue to hear about great acts of heroism, courage and the overwhelming generosity of Australians collectively digging deep to support the victims of this tragedy. Amidst all this chaos it’s interesting to see how the social Web responded to the crisis.
First the Good: Twitter provided shocking first-hand accounts of the fires and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd used his profile to direct followers to donate blood and cash to the Red Cross appeal. Other interesting uses of Twitter included this clever but unauthorised scraping of Country Fire Authority (CFA) updates. Google lent their support by creating a mashup of the CFA fire map which was buckling under the pressure of soaring demand. An Internet marketing agency created the Bushfire Housing site, a bed-sharing service which matches people in need of emergency accommodation with those willing to offer somewhere to stay.
This leads us to the Bad: according to a CNET report, the Victorian Government refused to provide data for Google’s fire map mashup due to Crown copyright provisions which restrict the use of government-produced information without explicit consent which apparently “runs contrary to data protection provisions in the US, where data produced by government agencies is held to be in the public domain.” This question around the ownership of public sector data has been widely debated in Australia for years. In this article Professor Brian Fitzgerald of QUT makes the case for freely releasing government data in the interests of spurring economic growth through the development of innovative applications and industries: “People have started to question whether charging at the front – in a sense having a gate – is the best model, or whether it’s best to allow more people to go through the gate and then try to multiply the downstream quantifier: allowing the data to flow; allowing new industries to emerge around the data, thereby raising more economic value for government and the community.” In the case of the bushfires it’s also about the social value that’s created when people can spontaneously self-organise knowledge resources to help each other respond to an unfolding situation.
In terms of the Ugly: a man suspected of setting a fire near Churchill Victoria, which killed at least 10 people and destroyed 200 homes, faced the wrath of an angry mob on Facebook where a number of groups were set up calling for the man to be tortured and killed, with one even offering a $10,000 bounty for his murder. The social networking site subsequently pulled the groups offline due to violations of its terms of service.
Bushfires continue to burn around the state of Victoria. A centralised approach to the production, distribution and ownership of information is a risky strategy as non-linear changes (like a bushfire) exerted on a closed system (public sector data) diminish that system’s capacity to offer an agile response to the situation. Let’s hope we can put these tools to better use in the future as clearly the community, government and emergency services teams have much to gain from working together in times of crisis using the opportunities the social Web enables for sharing, collaboration and more distributed forms of disaster response.