OpinionFire & Flood Resilience25 Mar 2021

Is one national disaster resilience data platform the best solution to work towards?

An integrated and nationally consistent platform for data sharing could help form an evidence base for use in disaster resilience.

Flood image
A street light pole is submerged under floodwaters along the overflowing Nepean river in Penrith suburb on March 21, 2021, as Sydney braced for its worst flooding in decades after record rainfall caused its largest dam to overflow and as deluges prompted mandatory mass evacuation orders along Australia’s east coast. Photo Credit: Saeed Khan / AFP via Getty Images.

Data is used across all aspects of disaster resilience – from predictive tools to help fire and emergency services understand the spread of fire and direct resources to respond, to forecasting tools used by the Bureau of Meteorology which assess weather patterns and the risk and exposure of local communities to floods.

Room to grow

But although data has enhanced our national disaster resilience immeasurably, it is still a largely untapped resource.

Imagine, for example, that assets like the local church, indigenous rock art, or telecommunications tower were accurately described in a digital way, and searchable? These insights could help guide decision making and action, lessening the local damage from natural disasters.

The problem is, there are still critical gaps in information about our landscapes and communities – and the risk of these being exposed to hazards.

Existing information is sometimes also inaccessible, hidden away on public, private and research-related websites. Through geo-tagging, for example, social media platforms can create insightful, real-time maps of a disaster – but many of these insights are shielded from public view, creating a patchy and incomplete record.

This fragmented data ecosystem leaves authorities unclear on where to channel disaster resilience investment, explains Minderoo Foundation’s Data Ecosystem Lead, John Sukkar.

Better guided decision making

“We need to look at data with a high enough resolution to allow local interventions. When we truly understand hazard risk and impact at a local level, we can start to customise our disaster resilience plans to individual neighbourhoods,” Mr Sukkar said.

Whilst some experts have called for a centralised, open-source data resource to advance this, Mr Sukkar believes other strategies are needed.

“Platforms don’t always need to be centralised. Of course, it helps when there is a clearly defined domain, but the disaster resilience space is extremely complex with many stakeholders playing vastly different roles. Instead, the primary objective is to stitch a coherent path through that ecosystem,” he said.

Challenges ahead

The difficulty is that, in such a complex environment with so many different custodians, data is often siloed and unstandardised.

Mr Sukkar further explained that “in the context of assessing a community’s ability to transform or bounce back from a disaster, you have to look at this using a number of layers. Things like hazard risk, exposure, vulnerability levels and also social, environmental and economic traits of a community. You can see just how difficult it can be to stitch all these attributes together to create a clear picture of community resilience.”

That said, Mr Sukkar remains optimistic.

“I believe we can define an integrated and nationally consistent platform with national scale. But first, we must identify the core attributes needed to build resilience. Next, standardise them in a way that makes sense. And finally, create mechanisms, like APIs, to share that data across public and private stakeholders and jurisdictions, into existing applications,” he said.

Progress is underway

Some pioneers have already attempted to do this, but more work needs to be done to bring those systems together in a meaningful way.

“Our vision is to build a data collective – a network of organisations who work together to source insights, expertise, and technologies – that can help form an evidence base for local investment in disaster resilience,” Mr Sukkar said.

“With support from our collaborators this can be scaled to provide immeasurable social impact return, across Australia’s diverse geographic regions.”

To this effect, several projects and opportunities for collaboration are underway, including:

  • The creation of common ways to identify, describe and record community assets at the national level;
  • A disaster resilience ecosystem map to help identify stakeholders and sources of information;
  • A hazard analysis map that provides a view into the complex layers of hazard and disaster resilience;
  • An Australian Disaster Resilience research portal to store bushfire data to enable multi-sector research;
  • A robust disaster resilience index that provides detailed insights to guide local resilience investments;
  • The extension of flood forecasting for the most flood prone regions across Australia; and
  • A digital twin to help represent the spatial elements of disaster resilience, such as landscape terrain.

With these measures, it is hoped that, over time, ‘natural disasters’ can be more commonly referred to as simply ‘natural events’.

Minderoo Foundation
by Minderoo Foundation

Established by Andrew and Nicola Forrest in 2001, we are a modern philanthropic organisation seeking to break down barriers, innovate and drive positive, lasting change. Minderoo Foundation is proudly Australian, with key initiatives spanning from ocean research and ending slavery, to collaboration in cancer and community projects.

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