Monday, February 18, 2013

“I smell smoke.”

I stepped off the train at Southern Cross station in Melbourne and smelled smoke. I looked to my phone and opened EmergencyAUS (free). I started to submit a report. My options were:

“I can see”

“I can feel”

“I am”

“I can hear”

“I can smell”

I picked “smell”. I was then guided through another series of multiple choice options to describe my situation. Eventually I constructed:

“I can smell… smoke… at my current location… now.”

EmergencyAUS then showed me that a lot of other people in Melbourne smelled it too. By the looks of the map of everyone’s observations I was on the western edge of the plume; icons of noses were densest in the northern suburbs but there were reports extending straight down to the coast an hour away.


Noses in and around melbourne- other people who smelled the smoke (sorry for the terrible picture- my phone is my usual camera so this is a webcam of my phone) 

Some people didn’t just smell the smoke, they saw it. Craigieburn to the north had a cluster of icons of eyes: “I see… a plume of… smoke… at my current location… less than an hour ago…”

One of the eyes on Napier Street (3.4 km away) uploaded a photograph of a large plume of smoke that I could download. This made me realize that when I sat down at work this afternoon and looked out the window, I also saw the plume of smoke but didn’t know what I was looking at at the time.


Ordinary citizens aren’t the only ones on EmergencyAUS. The metropolitan fire brigade submitted its own blazing red icon on the map indicating “Non structure fire: going. Not yet under control- more resources requested” (upper right)

The Country Fire Authority (CFA) had its own white icon with “fire warning advice”. The advice described the situation, gave advice on what to do and included links to more information and where to get situation updates.

Earlier today EmergencyAUS pushed alerts to me that happened within 1 km of my home. For example, 6 minutes ago an alarm went off on Collins street. Earlier this weekend, I heard two sirens drive by and after checking my phone I knew where they were going. Bigger search areas are possible but the city is a busy place and I didn’t want warning fatigue.

EmergencyAUS is not just about fire. Citizens can report and learn about floods, earthquakes, tsunami and so on. They can report that they are being evacuated by the police, are without power or even are looking at a destroyed bridge (!). There is mutual community support: “I need…a generator…at my current location… now” through to “I know where to get… bottled water…”.

Who is doing this? EmergencyAUS says little about what is supporting it except to say it’s “Built by Gridstone and powered by Ripe Intelligence”. The application is free for use in one state. To subscribe to all states is $24.50, or $4.50 per state for a year.

Extra: there is another app called FireReady. While EmergencyAUS is all emergencies, FireReady focuses on bushfires and gives more detail. It too says that 30.79 km to the north 70 emergency vehicles have been attending to a large (1900 hectares) grass fire since yesterday. There are reports of wildfire on the roads and the app gives a list of what to do to stay safe. I first learned about FireReady driving by a billboard.


  1. Crowdsourcing. Great stuff! What would the next useful development be, you think? Advice on how to respond? Your thoughts?

  2. The fire warnings included some information about how to respond, although it was just general advice.

    Using traffic as a parallel: I suppose when you get on google maps and search for directions from one place to another, there's three levels of intelligence in the reply. The simplest would be to base it on distance on the map. The next level would be considering realtime traffic information to avoid traffic jams. The top level would be individual advice that helps solve the problem, e.g. google balances the traffic load by recommending 30 drivers go one way and 50 go another.

    For fire emergencies, there's passive receipt of warnings with canned "stay safe" advice (level 1). Then there's an element of realtime intelligence (level 2) saying, for example, "in your location the typical evacuation route is North Country Road but fires have also been spotted in that area so we recommend staying in place for now". It's hard to think of a level 3 example except coordinating relief through mutual support of one citizen to another ("I need water at location X" "I am offering water at location Y").

    For photos at least, it'd be good to know the direction of the photo as well.