Guest blog post by Monica Palmeri who is a PhD Candidate in “Politics, Human Rights and Sustainability” at the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy. Her research focuses on conflict prevention and people-centered approach to conflict early warning and early response systems. She can be reached at monica_palmeri@yahoo.it. Forest fires are very complex phenomena which, under the right physical conditions, can rapidly devastate large areas. Rising temperatures, more frequent and severe droughts and other weather extremes will very likely increase the length and severity of the fire season, as well as the extension of areas of risk. This means that during the emergency phase, timely actions as well as operational conditions are of crucial importance in order to avoid that large forest areas are devastated in a few hours. The incidence of forest fires appears to be high throughout the Mediterranean region, and Italy in particular is one of the countries at a higher risk. Official data show that from January to September 2009 there have been 4.472 forest fires in Italy only, and that the 98% of forest fires are caused by people while only 2% by natural phenomena.

Fire is unavoidable … but not necessarily a catastrophe

Thinking preventively about the approaching dry season, an Italian independent consultant with extensive experience in disaster management and communication, Elena Rapisardi, and a forest worker, Giovanni Lotto, have recently launched a pilot project called Open Foreste Italiane, based on the Ushahidi platform. The project is still in an embryonic phase and draws on crowdsourcing early warning for the prevention and management of forest fires hazards. Picture 5 The idea was born out of the recognition that although in Italy there are several institutional and volunteering organizations involved in risk prevention and management activities, there is still a lack of information and knowledge sharing among these actors. Adding to this, when information is shared the lack of a common language; common standard formats for data gathering, analysis and exchange of information; compatible computers and user-friendly software represent a major obstacle to timely and informed actions across the territory. Against this background and based on the principle that “information needs to be collected and deployed to be effective,” the platform has been thought, at least in its initial implementation, as a forum for collecting and sharing information related to infrastructure, services and local initiatives for the prevention and management of forest fires hazards, and also as an instrument to map volunteering and civil society organizations involved in the field, relevant training courses and episodes of environmental damage. All this will be achieved by tapping “the talent of the crowd,” meaning the knowledge and experience of local communities, volunteers, experts and practitioners involved in the field. Briefly, the project is currently focused on facilitating the communication of information country-wide, improving the collection of data for early warning, and enhancing the identification, visualization and analysis of available resources, local prevention and management capacity and/or actual gaps and deficiencies. More ambitiously, it aims at “fostering a paradigm shift in our approach to emergencies, which emphasises the vital role of knowledge-sharing, collaboration and participation from the bottom, by indirectly enriching the knowledge of the territory”, said Ms Rapisardi. As such the project embodies the purpose of (people-centered) early warning outlined at the Third International Conference on Early Warning (EWC3): “Empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods.” However, as Ms Rapisardi pointed out, this does not mean to replace other institutions or organizations already in place but to complement relevant national fire danger warning systems where they exist, and to enhance warnings applied or generated at the local/community level. A local, bottom-up approach to early warning, with the active participation of local communities, will ensure delivery of targeted information reflecting specific local conditions and enable a multi-dimensional response to problems and needs. In this way, local communities, civic groups, volunteers and traditional structures can contribute to the reduction of vulnerability and to the strengthening of local capacities in forest fire prevention. In parallel to the collection and monitoring of information made available to the largest possible number of users through the platform, the project includes other important steps such as:
  • A continuous and capillary diffusion of information across regions, municipalities and communities in Italy, as a way of explaining the platform and its application, but also of rising awareness about the potential of web 2.0 and innovative approaches to risk prevention and management;
  • The organization of trainings and workshops addressed to volunteers and their networks in order to empower and strengthen their already crucial role in receiving and widely disseminating hazard warnings, acting as an interface between local communities and institutions, and building community capacity.
“I believe that we all should switch towards a new approach: the resilience approach, based on a horizontal and decentralised information flow. This can be achieved today by making more effective use of new information and communication technologies, in particular through crowdsourced applications,” concluded Ms Rapisardi.