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Why Google still can’t use Victoria’s bushfire data

Six years after the Country Fire Authority website crashed under the burden of too many people trying to find information about the Black Saturday bushfires, Google is still unable to put Victorian bushfire data on its disaster mapping website.

Since Google released its Crisis Map eighteen months ago — featuring real-time information on bushfires around Australia such as location, size and alert level — data from Victoria and Western Australia has been conspicuously absent from the site.

” … the brown cardigans said ‘oh no, you can’t have that information, that’s crown copyright’. It took some intervention at the highest levels to actually release that data.”

IT News reported in 2013 that this was due to Victoria’s fire agencies refusing to release their data under a Creative Commons licence, meaning Google, considered to be a commercial user, was unable to use it. Fires in Victoria are managed by three bodies: the CFA, Metropolitan Fire Brigade and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

But while the licensing question has seemingly been resolved, with emergency agencies having reached an agreement with Google, the problem is now that the government’s data formatting is incompatible with Google’s systems. The initial licensing dispute centred on government concern around whether Google would pass on all fire information in its entirety, though that is not a condition of the agreement.

Although Victoria has its own government FireReady app, some are concerned the government is not doing enough to make important fire safety information widely available, especially given that the CFA website crashed on Black Saturday.

In a statement addressing why Google’s Crisis Map still omitted Victorian data, Emergency Management Victoria said it was working with the three fire agencies and Google:

” … to enable Victorian data to be shown as part of their Crisis Map system. Google has been provided with the Victorian data in a range of formats and an agreement signed for them to use the data under Creative Commons licensing requirements, however the data formats have not suited their system.

“Google was advised late last year Victoria will be in a position to provide the appropriate data to them in a more suitable format for their purposes once that work is done. Victoria is happy to continue to work with Google to ensure this is the case. This will also benefit other third parties, which will also be able to more easily access and use the information available.”

It is not clear how long the process of changing the data formatting will take.

The Emergency Management Victoria statement added that the current licensing regime was being reviewed:

“The fire incident data from the three fire agencies is currently available to third parties. RSS feeds are available through the CFA website and these are used by other applications that promote emergency information. Additionally, there is a subscription system available for those that want the data from the source instead of through an RSS feed.

“The data licensing requirements for third party use is being considered as part of the broader work to improve the information available to communities — this work takes into consideration the data of multiple agencies.”

Google told The Mandarin it encourages agencies to make data available in an open format:

“We’ve been working with authorities to make the service available in all states and territories, but we’re only able to provide Public Alerts in partnership with authoritative agencies who issue emergency data in an open and standard format. We encourage potential partners to read our FAQ and to consider putting data in an open format, such as the Common Alerting Protocol.”

Digital government expert Craig Thomler points out that making changes to data formatting is not necessarily as easy as it may sound, especially when an agency has to also make sure it’s spending money on saving lives:

“It can take a long time to shift ingrained attitudes … until it becomes a mandate and a KPI for senior leadership, it will take a back seat.”

“I deal with a couple of people at the CFA and am a little surprised there’s still some of these issues given the experience over the last six years and how far they have come in integrating social into their intelligence and communication systems.

“All I can put it down to is the turn-speed of large complex organisations. Even when they want to turn, there’s often a lot of steps they need to go through.

“For example, their systems may not easily output data in formats that Google likes and the CFA may require significant IT investment to adapt it. It’s hard to build a business case for this when they need critical equipment and personnel they can directly link to saving lives.”

He does not dismiss, however, the possibility that resistance within Victoria’s emergency services may have slowed down the process:

“I know there are people very committed to openness within the CFA, however there’s likely to be a number of old hands, very experienced, but with a different mindset, that the CFA cannot easily convert or replace. It can take a long time to shift ingrained attitudes, whatever organisation you look at, and often people with older viewpoints are the older and more experienced staff who, due to their tenure, are at senior levels and can hold back the tide for years.

“You’ll see all the issues above for any public sector organisation when looking at open data. Until it becomes a mandate and a KPI for senior leadership, it will take a back seat to the activities that agencies are required to do and the KPIs that managers are required to meet.”

Thomler also thinks the government could do well from working with volunteers to hasten the process of releasing data in appropriate formats:

“What would be really interesting is if Code for Australia, or a similar group, was invited to work with the CFA — or they launched a challenge, maybe as part of GovHack, to address some of the issues above. There might be fast and cheap solutions which, if sufficiently robust and reliable, would address these issues. However that requires thinking differently — and may not have occurred to leadership who still follow older management principles.”

Darren Whitelaw, assistant director at strategic communication and protocol branch at the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, recently recounted the arguments around copyright between Google and “the brown cardigans” in government in 2009:

“Back in Black Saturday the CFA’s website crashed. It crashed with all the traffic of everyone getting information. So they put some sticky tape together and turned on some more servers and they got it going up again.

“As soon as the northern hemisphere woke up and started to read their online news, about how there’d been a big disaster in Victoria, and all the online news outlets were linking to the CFA’s website, bang, it crashed again. We just couldn’t get the data out there fast enough.

“Google came to the rescue and said ‘we’re happy to put some of this information on our maps API’ and the brown cardigans said ‘oh no, you can’t have that information, that’s crown copyright’. It took some intervention at the highest levels to actually release that data, get it out there, so people had the information about where the fires were burning in the maps API.”

Emergency Management Victoria told The Mandarin it is also “working to enhance the information available to the community and provide not only fire incident data and warnings, burnt area mapping and warning mapping, but also data for other emergencies such as flood. This supports the move in Victoria to collecting and displaying all hazards information to provide a fuller picture of an emergency to the community.”

Current Victorian public sector intellectual property policy says: “the state grants rights to its intellectual property, as a public asset, in a manner that maximises its impact, value, accessibility and benefit consistent with the public interest,” but adds that situations where “an agency may not grant rights to IP include where the IP … contains sensitive information about emergency responses that must be frequently updated.”

Read more at The Mandarin: Hazelwood response: managing social media in a crisis

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.