“Technology advances the ability of the industry to function efficiently, which helps everybody.”
– Jason Caskey, biological consultant
Information is power, and data is king. But our ability to utilize that data is only as good as the technology that collects, manages, shares, and integrates it. Worldwide, public and private entities are integrating cloud-based digital technologies to improve disaster response, assessment efforts, routine monitoring tasks and scientific investigations. Databases are not new, but the way we can collect, manage, and access that data is.
Whether it’s individuals sharing photos on social media, businesses producing reports, or governments coordinating global response efforts, cloud technology and smartphones have teamed up to change the landscape of how we collect, manage, and distribute information. Digital data collection not only speeds up and eliminates tedious steps, it creates uniform data attributes. This uniformity makes the data more consistent, accurate, and accessible, which makes it more useful.
Better Data = Better Prevention and Planning
“The smart phone apps that gather data are critical now” said Rob Lewin, director of the Santa Barbara, California Office of Emergency Management (OEM). Before this position, Lewin had 37 years with Cal Fire under his belt, including five years as Chief, and it was clear to him that assessment capabilities just had to improve. “We knew we had to get better and better because the fires were getting worse and worse. It was really on my mind.”
Speeding up the information chain speeds up everything, from home inspection before fires, to faster more relevant responses during active fires, to post fire assessment and recovery planning. Lewin said that the lack of standardization in some areas creates challenges. For instance, building inspectors count “homes” according to how they are documented on a parcel description, while Cal Fire counts any building with someone living in it as a “home.” So when Lewin asks, “How many homes were destroyed?” He often gets conflicting numbers. A survey designed to take those differences into account could easily manage that discrepancy. The ability to customize surveys and export data is an important attribute of any digital system.
Inspectors routinely check structures in high-risk fire areas for safety compliance. Santa Barbara County Fire Battalion Chief Rob Hazard says without digital capabilities, a lot of effort is devoted to just reporting deficiencies without gathering much useable data. “But with them,” Hazard said, “the crews are more efficient, and the data becomes both definitive and useable for post-fire assessment. For instance, we need studies to determine if fire resistant construction is truly helping. It’s expensive, is it worth it? We think it is, but we haven’t done the studies. The kind of definitive data we could collect digitally could allow us to compare detailed attributes of homes that burn versus those that don’t.”
Faster Data Improves Response Capabilities
When it comes to fighting wildland fires, Hazard said “GIS technology has been the most transformational.” During an active fire emergency, data can be collected and sent to incident command to create real-time maps. “During post-fire field assessments, you save time because when you map data points, you can do a quick spatial view to check to see if you missed anything.” He estimates that on the back end, digital collection cuts the time in half that it takes to enter handwritten data into a system, manage photos and issue a report. Hazard said a current challenge for firefighting is that mapping systems aren’t that great for surveys, and great survey systems don’t tend to have great mapping functionality. Systems need to easily interface with one another.
“There is high value in using smart devices for data collection. If that can happen in conjunction with a spatial component like visual mapping, efficient records management (accessible data, easy report generation) and a really good user interface – that’s the holy grail.” – Rob Hazard, Battalion Chief
Improving Recovery and Habitat Restoration Efficiency
Ed Orre, Cal Fire Chief in Morgan Hill, CA, thinks post-fire tasks, such as culvert assessments, road repair logs, fire break assessments and cultural resource management would benefit from a robust digital-survey platform like Wildnote. Wildnote emphasizes cooperative development of features and functionality with both the agencies and experts who require the data, and, perhaps more importantly, the people who actually use it in the field. Cooperative development via pilot projects helps sort out unanticipated problems and uncover new design opportunities. It’s often the little things that distinguish a good digital-survey platform from a great app.
Kevin Cooper is one of just two forest biologists assigned to the nearly 2-million-acre Los Padres National Forest, which was scorched, then scoured, by the massive Thomas Fire and subsequent rains. “After that fire, on the steeper slopes above the coastline, entire old trees were lifted out by their roots and delivered to the ocean. Huge shifts of habitat will occur due to scouring by the debris flows,” he said.
Threatened Species Habitat
Cooper said it’s clear that Forest Service biologists need to collect data digitally, and they are exploring the different options. “Once forest recovery money becomes available, we look at the issues of location and recovery.”
“Our window for forest recovery work can sometimes be really short so as not to disturb protected birds.” Data collected using migratory and nesting bird survey protocols can also provide indicators of overall ecosystem health. Cooper noted that “most endangered avian species are riparian and when a whole block is taken out, especially riparian, migratory patterns are disrupted.” The Thomas Fire roared across two counties. Digital data is easily cross-referenced and shared between regions to quickly paint a comprehensive picture. Success stories are always good news. Data shows the endangered Least Bell’s Vireo had not yet arrived when the Thomas Fire hit. Cooper said the majority of their prime local habitat was left intact.
Meanwhile, a radio tagged endangered California Condor fledgling was even luckier. Radio tracking technology allowed avian biologists to locate the chick in the vast wilderness. Though it’s wings were singed, it is alive and healthy and expected to recover. Experts are pretty sure that its first flight was a desperate (and successful) attempt to escape the inferno.
Retiring notebooks in favor of digital technology just makes sense. It saves time and money, reduces errors, increases uniformity, portability, usefulness and longevity. It’s no longer a matter of “if” digital technology will replace manual surveys, it’s “when and which one?” Adaptable software developers, such as Wildnote, who can respond quickly to “I wish it did this….” will thrive in this fast-evolving sector. Companies want to know that the technology they invest in can grow with them as their needs become more defined.