26.08.2020 - Angus Dorney

NSWBushfireInquiryReport:HowTechnologyistheAnswer

The newly released, 466-page report on the NSW bushfires identifies that technology is one of the greatest areas of improvement that the New South Wales fire fighting agencies and their partners can undertake.

As an organisation that has built prototype technology to solve these very issues, Kablamo understands what the report’s recommendations mean on a talent and resourcing level. The stakes are high and we need to move fast.

It is summarised in the report that “developing new comprehensive data platforms and decision-making tools will require resources and good cooperation between the fire authorities, the agencies specialising in spatial matters, and experts from the fire, remote sensing and artificial intelligence domains.”

This is a broad scope of disciplines required to come together - and quickly - before the next extreme fire event. And though recent rain may lull NSW into a false sense of security, this report calls for urgency in establishing strong underlying technology platforms in preparation for future fire seasons. Governments have never been known for their speed of implementation, but this could be what finally drives accelerated innovation.

While nearly all of the 79 recommendations require a new or upgraded level of technology as a base platform from which to operate, 15 recommendations explicitly mention digital transformations and improved data capabilities. There needs to be a comprehensive digital transformation across NSW government fire service agencies, which can then be expanded and integrated across states and territories. This means change (starting with leadership) and the acceptance of the rapid and iterative nature of digital and data-based innovation. Yet we do not want to rush and take unnecessary risks - bushfires can have devastating impacts on lives, livelihoods and our environment. Never has it been more important to move quickly yet to manage risk and to ensure any failure (or learning) is “safe failure” and moves our country forward in terms of learning and the digital journey.

The inquiry’s plan is to create a State Digital Twin, woven together from local and national databases of geospatial, meteorological, historical, behavioural, and property metadata, which would replicate exact conditions for each fire season. The amount of data required to build an accurate, responsive digital representation of a state (one that is bigger than most countries) cannot use physical servers for the task. This needs to be a secure, scalable and high-powered cloud-based data platform, for which Kablamo has been advocating for some time.

This State Digital Twin will allow for better prediction and planning across the entire state, but then, only if the interface is designed to communicate well across a wide range of stakeholders. Product design will be key,especially when the platform is being used in times of high pressure and extreme danger. The inputting and extracting of information - like terrain angles, fire-truck locations, or evacuee positions - needs to be quick and seamless, otherwise mistakes and complications occur. Combining the design, with the recommended data and digital, will really mean we are ready for next time.

All the recommendations for this report, if implemented as NSW plans to do, can build the start of an exciting future picture of the state. Yes, there will undoubtedly be bushfires, but we will be able to tackle them with a level of knowledge and technical capability not seen anywhere else in the world.

The report already acknowledges that while “the 2019-20 fires were unlike anything seen in NSW before,… modern day technology and research advances have made us more capable of responding to them than at any time before.” (p.15) The establishment of a major world centre in bushfire research, and technology development and commercialisation (which will include a Bush Fire Technology Fund) enables NSW to develop into a considered intelligent hub for bushfire prevention and management that can be shared nationally and internationally. Australia should be the global leader in bushfire technology.

The report likens this next step for NSW with the decisions made in The Netherlands after the deaths of 1,815 people due to massive flooding in 1953. The Dutch Government’s aim to ensure a similar disaster never happened again drove huge technological development. It was “the creation of an industry that now sells its expertise internationally, and [has] a clear view that investment in disaster prevention is more cost-effective than the huge cost of emergency response and rebuilding.” (p.99)

The sooner NSW constructs a scalable and powerful data platform to host and implement the 79 recommendations, the sooner we have a base capability to use technology to better manage wildfires. For our part, we’ve already taken the first steps to improving our national bushfire prediction and response capabilities and we are passionate about leading the way for the Australian technology industry.

With the inquiry’s recommendations laid down, NSW can accelerate the digital transformation of aging infrastructure that can’t cope with megafires. With a new technology focus, we can develop the platforms that allow us to predict, manage and prevent fires better, and create an industry that saves lives and the environment here as well as around the world.

Author

Angus Dorney

co-CEO of Kablamo

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