How Firestory is helping harness technology to prevent devastating bushfires. Learn more in our Q&A with our Geospatial Lead, Andrew McDowell.
At Firestory, the cloud-based data and AI platform for bushfire management, human-centred design is embodied in their DNA. We sat down with Andy McDowell to talk about his work with spatial engineering, data science and frontend development on Firestory and his passion for work place culture.
Geospatial engineering and 3D mapping technologies aren’t fields that many of us know much about, but spend half an hour with Andy McDowell and not only will you understand them, you’ll be as excited and enthusiastic about them as he is.
Andy is the Spatial & Application Lead at Kablamo and his skill and experience as a software engineer is central to his role there. But his abilities and passions extend much further than AI and computational science. Passionate about building great engineering teams, Andy’s hearty, big-natured personality has found an ideal, if surprising, fit amongst the traditionally reserved software engineers he manages.
One of Andy’s most significant projects at Kablamo is his work on Firestory a cloud-based data and Artificial Intelligence platform for managing bushfires. Turning the almost limitless amounts of bushfire data into a single source of decision-making intelligence, FireStory provides both prediction and management capabilities and helps in the prevention of bushfires.
We talked to Andy about both his work on Firestory and his success nurturing his team.
What is Firestory and what are the real-time impacts it’s able to have for people on the ground?
Essentially, Firestory is a log of everything that happens around a fire incident. We focus on about four different roles from centralised headquarters like incident controllers, fire behaviour analysts, step-by-step operations controllers and the Public Liaison Unit. We digitise a lot of their workflows, integrating large amounts of data from many, many sources. This means the people who are trying to make the decisions on the ground don’t have 100 tabs open and they can see all their data within one platform, and within the context of the information that they’re trying to resolve.
It’s incredibly nuanced with complex workflows but there’s so much that we can do. We’ve taken workflows that were largely paper based, sometimes not easy to historically review, and completely automated them. This has helped a lot with enquiries after fire events. Rather than relying on masses of paperwork and individual recollections, it’s as simple as pressing an ‘export’ button and you’ve got all the information.
With so much information, a broad audience and a constantly evolving situation, what are some of the main challenges you’ve faced tying these webs of issues together?
We’ve had a lot of geospatial challenges around how you integrate different types of data and visualise them so you’re presenting complex data in a way that humans, with many different skills, can get insights from quickly.
We’ve got historical data, observational data about what’s happening right now, and forecasted data of what we think is going to happen to the fire in the next 12 hours. The challenge is taking all those different types of data presenting it in a way that just lets people do their jobs and meets their needs.
Firestory has to be really agile as well. There’s a constant inflow of data and new technologies that it needs to integrate, this isn’t a set and forget system.
Presenting complex data to people surely presents a design dilemma too? How do you overcome this?
First of all, we start by understanding what the job to be done is by asking ‘what do people need to do with this information?’ You could of course show them everything but that has challenges both around sending it and showing it in a web browser, because it would be so big and so busy. Stripping it back to give them the insights they need you can start to work on what is really important.
Predictive workflows help incident controllers make the best decisions they can, showing them the most likely events that are going to happen in the coming 12 hours or six hours. For instance, you have information coming from the BOM so you can understand current and forecasted weather, what the vegetation will do in the wind, the fuel load, how dry it is, the topography of the land and a whole raft of other information. This is fed into the model and the model gives you a prediction. Cross referencing it with other data sources you know like where schools, houses, roads and hospitals are, where high voltage power lines are, where there’s access to water, if buses and trains go to an area so you know when to divert traffic, issue evacuation orders, change an evacuation route, redistribute fire appliances and personnel.
We’re not here to tell people what to do, we’re here to give them the tools to do their job better, faster and more reliably. It’s really about understanding what people are trying to do and giving them the information rather than overwhelming them with it.
How is Firestory evolving?
Up until now it’s mostly been around the incident management situation but we’re working on a research and development piece to understand on a more granular and accurate scale, an understanding of what’s in the land, like how fast crops and grasslands grow.
We’re starting to understand it on a small scale to build up to state wide and then national, understanding that there are different challenges, climates, topologies, and crops.
We’re working with both publicly available satellite information but we’re also talking to companies with private satellites with higher resolution data, temporal and spatial. The next generation of satellites are called hybrid hyperspectral satellites which give a lot more granular intelligence, so the scale of information is much, much bigger, which brings its own challenges.
There are pieces of the puzzle that are already solved but bringing it into Firestory is another layer of information. It’s a piece of work that’s never actually finished, a labour of love.
Your other passion project at work is around having a robust company culture. How are you shaping the culture at work in an industry that thrives on innovation?
I love the culture! We’re a bunch of people who are all highly excited to build code, software and products and we’re all constantly figuring out how to make remote working feel as inclusive as possible.
Our front-end catch-up meetings that we have every two weeks is a place that no matter what project or team you’re working on it’s a place to meet your peers, catch up, discuss technology and trends, problems you’re having and things that we can all discuss as a team. Nothing’s off the table which makes it a really cohesive experience.
We’ve also started to introduce a Pecha Kucha which is a little bit like a TED talk. Every two weeks we roll some virtual dice and the person with the highest number gives a presentation at the next meeting, about 20 slides with 20 seconds per slide, on any topic they like. If they’ve just joined the company, it might be on themselves, but we’ve had topics as diverse as Brazilian samba music, baking bread, fish tanks, anything that interests people.
In a remote world, that helps build rapport and togetherness which is important when people are sitting in their own home rather than an office.
But we’re always working on it, it doesn’t happen automatically, you must put the effort in. Getting people excited to work together is so important. We’ve started to have our office in Canada host them as well so it’s really a shared experience.
The pandemic accelerated the process of remote working, but do you think Kablamo would be in the same situation now if it hadn’t happened?
I joined in the middle of the pandemic, but I understand that was already something of a culture of remote working but perhaps more based in client offices. I do think in a post pandemic world it’s more important to offer flexibility because other employers are. So how do we make the best of that and maintain relationships like we had before and build culture like we had before?
There are different challenges but it can be done, we just have to try. Take the Pecha Kucha. Software engineers aren’t known for their love of public speaking but as consultants we tend to do that a lot anyway. If you’ve had experience presenting in front of your peers about something you’re interested in, you’re learning to get out of your comfort zone but in a safe space. It takes the stress out of it and then we can take those skills that people are learning and apply it to speaking in front of customers. It’s not like learning from a module or ticking a box.
Getting people really excited about things, whether it’s the project they’re working on, or the people they’re working with, is at the nexus of innovation and human psychology.