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How Tristan and Mark built the near-impossible bushfire app they hope will save lives

Bushfire.io founders Tristan Morris and Mark Carroll. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Bushfire.io founders Tristan Morris and Mark Carroll. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Tristan Morris was on the South Coast, escaping the smoke that had been hanging over Canberra for weeks, when he was struck with a sense something was not right.

Staying with friends in Ulladulla, he'd been planning on heading further south before making his way home. The night before he was due to leave, he heard the road had been blocked off.

"We're all like, that's a bit weird," Morris said.

He whipped out his phone and brought up the NSW Rural Fire Service FiresNearMe app. It turned out there was a fire right next to the highway.

There was no advice at that point to evacuate, or any information to suggest which way the fire was headed.

"I was like right, I'm going to get out tomorrow so I got petrol that night, left at 5am, got back to Canberra and on the way back, there were fire trucks heading in the other direction to close the road like an hour after I left which was lucky," Morris said.

"I got back to Canberra, jumped on my computer and had a look at the news and was reading about how the bushfire had swept through Cobargo that morning and there were a couple of people missing, presumed dead at the time.

"I was looking and thinking, this is ridiculous. How is this not a solved problem? Why are we still getting people caught in these fires?"

Morris - who has degrees in computer science, software engineering and psychology, and has worked for 18 years in the fields of high-performance computing, data science and artificial intelligence - got to work.

Within three days, he'd built a platform which combined data from the NSW and Victorian fire apps with traffic and weather data. Bushfire.io ran off a $30 Raspberry Pi - a credit card-sized computer designed to teach basic computer science in schools and developing countries. Within a month, the platform had 120,000 unique users. Later, it was even used in the National Crisis Coordination Centre.

Mark Carroll, a NSW Rural Fire Service volunteer from Carwoola, was out firefighting near Nerriga when he first saw it.

Carroll and Morris had worked together for a number of years, and Carroll knew what the app needed to really be useful to firefighters on the ground.

"Mark came back pretty quickly and was like, 'we need wind, wind would be great'. Then I spent that entire weekend trying to get wind working and I couldn't get wind working," Morris said.

Bushfire.io's Mark Carroll and Tristan Morris worked hard to integrate data from multiple different sources into one app. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Bushfire.io's Mark Carroll and Tristan Morris worked hard to integrate data from multiple different sources into one app. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

For Carroll, the desperate need for greater situational awareness on the fireground was deeply personal.

Three years ago, he was medically evacuated from a fireground after flames engulfed his truck during the fast-moving fire at Carwoola. Another firefighter was pinned between two trucks, and Carroll suffered third-degree burns.

Carroll realised the app Morris had created could be a game-changer.

"I looked at it and I said 'Wow, the amount of information this is giving me in one spot is such a lift compared to what we had to do to get that information separately'," Carroll said.

Eight months on, the app now pulls in open-source data from 30 government and non-government sites into one platform which covers the whole country.

It draws on near real-time weather observations and wind modelling from the Bureau of Meteorology and the United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It uses firefighting aircraft transponders and flight-track information to show planes attacking bushfires. It even shows satellite-detected hotspots, with data integrated from NASA.

"You do have to give the agencies a fair amount of credit for making the data available. It's much better than it would have been even five years ago," Carroll said.

But while combining the data into one platform sounds like a no-brainer, it was a near-impossible task.

"Tristan didn't sleep through most of January," Carroll said.

All we're doing is communicating the information that's already out there and bringing together a very rich picture.

Mark Carroll

Helped by a small band of developers, Morris began combing through government datasets, checking and testing how different alerts were represented in the back-end of each system, and combining them.

Features like wind were tough to get working. The Bureau of Meteorology tried to charge Morris more than $4000 for a licence to access the data. He ended up using Australian data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which generates weather forecasts every six hours.

The sheer number of hotspots in the Orroral Valley nearly brought the platform to a grinding halt.

"It was really slow because of the number of dots [it had] to draw on a phone screen or computer. There were like 40,000 or 50,000 points in the Orroral Valley of fire, it was insane," Morris said.

Carroll, meanwhile, was able to get live feedback on developments from his NSW RFS colleagues while they were out on shift. Sometimes he'd ask for a feature while in the back of a fire truck, and it would be there by the time they were heading back to the station.

What made the task especially challenging was the fact there was no consistent standard between the different apps and different jurisdictions. Morris and his team often had to wait for an alert to be issued to work out what it looked like in the back-end.

Victoria and NSW also used different polygons to issue fire alert warnings. In NSW, the polygons follow the fire edge, while in Victoria they are more blunt and cover a larger area. This means you may get an alert in Victoria when you might not in NSW.

"I guess it's like another one of those things, you have to know that they're different," Morris said.

Developers have been crying out for this data to be standardised. The Royal Commission into National Disaster Arrangements this week heard agreed national warning systems would allow the market to build more apps like this, instead of governments spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop their own.

Carroll and Morris believe their app is proof of the innovation that can happen if data is made more freely available in Australia for no or low cost.

Freeing up data could also help keep people safe during future disasters.

Carroll says there is a need for greater situational awareness across Australia, including within firefighting ranks.

Volunteers had even paid for mapping software and other apps out of their own pocket.

The app came in handy during the Jinden fire, when Carroll's crew was tasked with doing a backburn near where the fire was spotting.

"We didn't have any official information about where that particular hotspot was but I was able to pull up bushfire.io, look at where the satellite-detected hotspot was, and we then navigated the truck into that hotspot using this," he said.

"Now I could have gone to another platform as well to find that hotspot, because that data is out there, but this pulled it together for me in one picture where I could see where the mapped fire edge was and where exactly the hotspot where we were going to start a backburn was.

"It was incredibly useful."

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Morris is looking to build an alerts system into the app that would flag potential threats to users, depending on their location and watch areas. He is also experimenting with creating a fire-prediction function, although it's early days yet. Carroll hopes to find a market for the app so it can take on a life of its own.

"We wonder, in terms of commercialising this, whether there is some applicability towards insurance markets and others to help save on the pretty huge cost of things like storm and flood and fire," Carroll said.

This particular application feels personal for Morris - his car was written off during the Canberra hail storm earlier in the year and he wrote a bunch of code for bushfire.io on the bus. But while the ACT Emergency Service Agency supplies the data under open source arrangements and encourages developers to innovate with it, it also says the public should turn to its own service in an emergency.

"In an emergency in the ACT, the ACT Emergency Services Agency is the official source of truth for emergency alerts and warnings," a spokeswoman said.

"The ESA encourages the community to assess their risk and need to undertake actions by using information sourced from official authorities such as the ESA."

A spokesman for the NSW RFS said it was continually making improvements to the FiresNearMe tool, "with additional features to be rolled out in the future".

Carroll believes their app complements existing channels. He likened it to WeatherZone, which draws on data from the Bureau of Meteorology, or even ABC radio, which synthesises and amplifies information from emergency services during a crisis.

"I think these days it's very rare for people to get information from one source," Carroll said.

"All we're doing is communicating the information that's already out there and bringing together a very rich picture."

This story How Tristan and Mark built the near-impossible bushfire app they hope will save lives first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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