Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Developments in emergency communications in NSW and the ACT; or, Thoughts on climate change, emergency communications and factors limiting the potential for broadband to mitigate risk in disaster management thus containing the expected increases in global insurance premiums

ACT Emergency Services Agency & Google, 8 January 2013
After a brief period of calm this morning, Canberra's weather erupted with gusty, dry, hot winds. "Extreme" fire warnings were in force and emergency services vehicles were visible in the major town centres. Reminiscent of the 2003 bushfires, I was interested in finding out what was happening in my local area. The difference this time, however, was the amount of information available online. This saw me thinking about my abstract for the 2013 World Social Science Forum in Montreal, Canada, this year, where the topic is "Social transformation and the digital age" and the deadline is next week. These are some thoughts about the role of broadband infrastructure and services in mitigating insurance risk due to climate change.

Although I had broadband via TransACT during the 2003 bushfires, I remember turning to the radio for information. Today was quite different. The first notice arrived via a Facebook status update from ABC News:

Next was a Facebook friend's status update with a link to the ACT Emergency Services Agency's website with a map focused on the ACT, with detailed information and near real-time status updates about fires, motor vehicles collisions and so on.

ABC News map depicting fires across NSW & ACT, 8 January 2013
As I type, the Twitterati are going for broke with updates about what is happening around the ACT and NSW, and the difference between the information available now compared with 2003 is enormous.

In 2003, I recall hearing the natural disaster warning signal - the same signal we heard as kids almost every summer in Cairns during cyclone season - but by then burning ashes were falling from the sky. Today, the availability of technologies such as Google Maps, social media, and so on - all enabled by broadband services - are fast becoming necessities, especially in emergency communications. The emergency services use of high-speed broadband is increasingly an important area of focus for the International Telecommunications Union, especially in establishing technical standards. No doubt as the frequency of natural disasters increases, the ubiquitousness of broadband - both wired AND wireless - will play an important role in disaster management.

In addition to disaster notifications, meteorological information plays an important role in assisting citizens to prepare for severe weather conditions. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has developed an interactive weather map to provide such information in near real-time. As I write, I am aware that we can expect an evening storm with lightning but little to no rain. This enables us to make preparations for pets, clean up the backyard and so on. Importantly, none of this information was readily available in 2003, so technological improvements have had a significant impact on citizen-preparedness at an individual/familial level.

As a result of past experiences, bushfire survival plans and risk assessment tools are now available online, particularly via state government websites such as Fire & Rescue NSW. The educative function enabled by broadband services, when combined with television advertising, appears to have proven effective:

It is hard to imagine emergency communications without broadband, but it is equally difficult to imagine that climate change doesn't exist when we are experiencing what was aptly explained by a photo shared by another Facebook friend:

Via Facebook as the wind turned nasty in Canberra earlier today
When I first started researching communications technology policy, I was often accused of "conflating" various topics, especially when discussing technological convergence. But my thoughts today are flicking from emergency communications to disaster management to broadband to Internet content to climate change to the insurance industry to government-business relations and globalisation. Let me explain.

If broadband is an enabler of effective emergency communications services, and climate change is going to increase insurance premiums (see Lloyd's: "Climate Change, Adapt or Bust"), then it follows that better disaster responses from emergency services combined with better-prepared citizens educated and informed by Internet content can mitigate the risk inherent in climate change, thereby reducing or containing increases in insurance premiums.

Today's experience of emergency communications technologies demonstrated how both governments (at the various levels from local to state to federal) and businesses (in particular Google, Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter) play pivotal roles in facilitating online content provided via broadband infrastructure. Neither can be separated from the process as it currently operates: Google Maps provides the basis for updates provided by emergency services agencies, and then users of social networks disseminate the information or provide links to various sources of local information.

Google's globalised information system becomes locally useful when adapted by the relevant authorities and/or users: the environmentalist's mantra "think global [communications system] / act local [content services]" seems to work here. But how can this be coordinated in such a way as to mitigate global insurance risk? Can the "greener" National Broadband Network proposed by Alcatel-Lucent (see more on the Alcatel-Lucent/NBN scandal in 2009 and 2012) be achieved in the current environment?

One of the biggest challenges seems to be the global political dominance of the nation-state resulting in national security issues concerning broadband infrastructure. This is a problem because broadband infrastructure tends to transcend national boundaries, despite numerous attempts by nation-states to control the Internet (see for example Google in China and the Australian Government's failed attempt at introducing an Internet filter, and also Chinese telecom Huawei which was banned from participating in the build-out of Australia's NBN). While the benefits of technological convergence are often hindered by industrial and regulatory demarcation, the same can be said of global networks 'siloed' by nation-states. Whitt (2004: 591) outlines the problem:
Trying to impose the current, outmoded legal system onto the Internet and all its IP progeny is a flawed, damaging, and ultimately doomed approach. Instead, policymakers should adopt a new public policy framework that regulates along horizontal network layers, rather than vertical silos
And the solution:
[To] move away from... artificially separate communications-related services, networks and industries... [and] build our laws around the Internet, rather than the other way around
While there is insufficient space to go into the details of Whitt's "Network Layers Model" here, suffice to say that the deliberate segregation of networks created by nation-states (either carriage or content) limits the potential of broadband infrastructure and services to assist in emergency communications. It follows, then, that one of the major "social transformations" in the "digital age" may well be the end of nationally-controlled communications networks brought about by climate change.

Although scientists and polemicists may argue about the nature of climate change, much like politicians may argue about national security and infrastructure, it is entirely possible that a global increase in insurance premiums may make climate change as real as it gets. If this happens, it makes sense that national jurisdictions will be ill-equipped to provide the detailed, sustainable and technologically-advanced networks and content necessary to provide emergency communications during natural disasters. While I have much work to do in clarifying these ideas, there is certainly a research paper in there somewhere and I will post my abstract here next week.


Whitt, R.S. (2004). ‘A Horizontal Leap Forward: Formulating a New Communications Public Policy Framework Based on the Network Layers Model’. Federal Communications Law Journal, 56(3): 587-672.

Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio