As Australia heads into bushfire season proper, having already had a taste with devastating fires in Tasmania and NSW, mobile developers Gridstone are hoping that their EmergencyAUS platform will help consumers get better access to natural disaster information and government organisations get a better picture of disasters as they unfold.
The EmergencyAUS mobile app was released 12 months ago. The platform comprises free mobile apps for iOS and Android as well as a backend system that aggregates large quantities of data from multiple channels, explained Gridstone director Lembit Pikkat.
When the company built EmergencyAUS it drew on extensive experience with emergency services mobile apps. Gridstone built the Victorian Country Fire Authority's app, an iPad-based app for SES volunteers, as well as systems deployed in South Australia and various local government jurisdictions.
"One of the things that we saw time and time again when we've been building for emergency services is that they all focus on the one hazard," Pikkat said.
"They focus on bushfires, or they focus on trees down for the SES. It's only one agency, one hazard. What we identified was the public really want to know about anything — any disaster or emergency that is happening around them. It doesn't matter whether it's a hailstorm coming towards them, a cyclone, tsunami, earthquake, whatever."
EmergencyAUS "takes an all-hazards, all-agency approach".
"We actually went out and built it ourselves in conjunction with our partner, RIPE Intelligence," Pikkat said.
RIPE Intelligence gathers data from some 35 different emergency services around the country. That data is aggregated in a backend system running on Amazon Web Services' public cloud. The developers went with a cloud-based platform in order to cope with the extreme variability in the quantities of data that need to be aggregated, Pikkat said.
"We're aggregating about 6GB of information per day on a quiet day from all these utilities," he said. "You take a big day like a bush fire in the Blue Mountains and you're consuming a lot of data. It's basically big data meets mobile...
"We might be running year round on about four, five servers doing all the different things — push notifications, all those different components running and consuming data. When an incident happens — like last year in one day we had bushfires in WA, a cyclone in Queensland, bushfires in Tasmania and floods in Victoria all happening at once —we needed to ramp up from those four or five servers to about 50 servers to consume the data and push out the information. So a solution like AWS and the cloud is perfect for us."
"Emergency information is very 'bursty' and most in-house infrastructure just doesn't have the [capacity] to copes with bursts," Pikkat added.
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Although the consumer-focussed mobile app is free, in-app purchases — to provide data across multiple states or add multiple watch areas — are available.
However, the app is only one part of the equation for Gridstone, Pikkat said. The company is building tools to deliver aggregated emergency data to government organisations, such as local councils, and businesses, such as utilities.
"What we're really seeing is that a lot of corporate and government agencies would like to have more information available to them," Pikkat said. "So longer term, we're building tools for these organisations to be able to consume the data or contribute more data. Anything from a council through to an emergency service organisation through to a utility, they all need these basic tools.
"For example you might have a utility that sends people out in the bush to work on power lines — they need tools to warn their workers about impending bushfires or storms. But they could also use the same tool to report information about incidents they have — like here's a power line down, grab a photo, grab all that sort of information, and provide a private feed into your own organisation"
"We're having a lot of discussions with councils and different corporate and government organisations," Pikkat said.
"What we're seeing is this is basically breaking traditional moulds, where normally the government organisation will do everything in-house, or the corporate will do everything in-house, but we're almost providing a platform-as-a-service to these organisations."