The curious case of Google's missing Victorian fire data

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The curious case of Google's missing Victorian fire data

Victorian Government won't release data under Creative Commons.

A plan by Google to mirror and centralise the fire maps and emergency warnings generated from all Australian fire services won’t include data from Victoria and Western Australia at launch, iTnews has learned, after a stand-off over the release of government data.

Google has been working on an emergency services application since well before March 2013, and is expected to announce the availability of a new app later today, albeit one with large patches of Australia missing.

The app will be integrated with Google Search and Google Maps, to aid Australians searching for information about the bushfires and other disaster events, and will further be available as a downloadable mobile app to push out generate emergency warnings to smartphone users in an affected area.

But in order to work on a national level, the app requires the consent and assistance of fire and emergency services agencies from all Australian States and Territories, at least two of which have been reluctant to hand over their data to a commercial entity.

The launch won’t include data from Victoria or Western Australia.

Copyright vs Creative Commons

Google required that emergency services organisations make bushfire data available via the Creative Commons license – which allows for the free distribution of content that might otherwise be protected by the legal construct of copyright.

The Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) already provides a comprehensive fire mapping and alert service for Victorian residents from its web site, which is further integrated with an emergency warning system, an emergency hotline and alerts on social media (Twitter and Facebook). The data on the CFA’s web site is refreshed at five minute intervals.

The CFA sources this data from its own operations, but also from emergency warnings issued by Victoria’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade (responsible for grass fires and structural fires in the outskirts of cities) and from Victoria’s Department of Environment and Primary Industries.

In order to secure this data, the CFA agreed to protect it via the more traditional, restrictive legal construct of copyright. The CFA’s copyright statement – published on its web site – states that no data “may be reproduced or reused for any commercial purposes whatsoever”.

Google, whose altruistic fire mapping services are inexorably linked to its commercial services (advertising), falls squarely into that category.


The Victorian CFA’s service also differs from those in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT from a legislative perspective.

In the wake of the horrendous Victorian Bushfires in 2009 – and the Royal Commission that followed – the Victorian Fire Services Commissioner is now bound by a legislative responsibility to issue timely and accurate community information and warnings about fire activity.

It could prove problematic, for example, if Google was to pick and choose what emergency warnings it would make public. If the CFA was to issue a warning that Google chose to on-send, but the CFA later chose to upgrade or downgrade that warning, what assurance could the Fire Commissioner obtain that Google issued the updated alerts in a timely manner?

Victorian Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said the data feed can’t be released to Google without some controls around its delivery and use.

"The Victorian community has an expectation that the information being provided to them is up to date and appropriate and we need to be confident that any third party provider, including Google, has the processes in place to make that happen.“

Download our research report on copyright and privacy challenges in the big data era - Free for iTnews subscribers.

Further negotiations

The Commissioner has taken a lead role in negotiations with Google to ensure a united front from Victorian Emergency Services.

“Victoria is working with Google to develop an agreement to use Victorian emergency warnings data issued by MFB, CFA and DEPI,” Lapsley said.

The Fire Services Commissioner (FSC) met with representatives from Google last Monday and the two parties agreed the only way forward was the development of a ‘data use agreement’ – a contract, essentially — that binds Google to the terms and conditions the FSC sets down.

The FSC has also provided Google a ‘development data feed’ so that it might at least do the integration work required to pull Victorian feeds into its system.

Whether that data is re-published by Google rests now on whether the advertising giant agrees to sign the FSC's data use agreement.

A spokesperson for the Western Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services has also confirmed its data will also not be available at the Google launch, and the agency is preparing a formal response to iTnews' questions.

Do you think all government data should be made available under Creative Commons, or is some data too sensitive? Have your say below.

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