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How OSINT helps while Australia Burns

Residents shelter in Batemans Bay as the fire approaches
Residents shelter in Batemans Bay as the fire approaches

The Australian bushfire crisis is the worst in Australia’s history.

At the time of writing, twenty people have been killed; including three fire fighters, two residents on kangaroo island Trapped while fleeing the blaze and an otherwise health woman who went into respiratory distress due to smoke after disembarking a plane in the Nation’s capital, Canberra.

Some 60,000 sq km of land has been scorched, an area larger than many European countries.

And the fires show no signs of easing up with many more residents being evacuated from costal towns encircled by flames.

Throughout this bushfire crisis one thing has remained strong: our thirst for information. Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) offers an untapped potential for such information.

For the media, it offers an ability to find that breaking news. For law enforcement information offers an ability to co-ordinate efforts. And for those facing the flames, an understanding of what is happening on the grounds can calm the nerves.

I know.

My house was 9kms from a fire recently, separated by only national park and a few rows of houses.

When facing ember attacks, my family and I used multiple sources of information to stay up to date. One such untapped source has been Snapchat’s Snapmap.

Reconnecting Isolated Communities

While evacuation and fire fighting efforts are underway communities can become cut off and isolated. The Australian township of Mallacoota is one such town.

Without access to food and fuel, the township is facing a humanitarian crisis. A crisis, which, prompted the deployment of the Australian Defence Force. While the media reported on the activity of the deployment, footage was obtained directly from Snapchat of the evacuation underway.

OSINT obtain in this way can be used to verify the veracity of the claims made. In some cases the media have even asked for copies of the footage.

For those already evacuated, information can become scarce. Loved ones can become separated as evacuations are prioritised based on need. Finding OSINT and sharing it allows those people to understand what is going on when traditional lines of communication have been cut.

OSINT also allows information of efforts being undertaken to reach a wider audience than that of traditional media. Footage uploaded to platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat can reach many more as residents in isolated communities loose access to televisions. Radio broadcasts can only provide so much.

Social media is the disruptive technology of the last decade. It is no different when it comes to disasters.

The Aftermath

Open Source Intelligence has also been invaluable in conducting reconnaissance of the communities affected.

In Batemans Bay footage was uploaded to Snapchat showing the state of the local shops; empty.

OSINT can also be used to verify current conditions before making decisions. With conditions changing rapidly, and map information only released so often by local authorities, live footage from the region showing road conditions can help motorists make decisions on which way to travel.

And while resources run low, charity from the global community has been phenomenal.

Celeste Barber setup a donation link on Facebook which, at the time of writing, has collected over $20 Million with several others appearing. One in England has raised on £1.9 Million.

All of this conducted on social media.

The New Normal

While Open Source Intelligence can offer assistance in obtaining information from isolated and cut off communities like Mallacoota and Batemans Bay, Australians need to understand that this will be the new normal.

It is without a doubt in my mind that this fire activity has been made worse by a combination of climate change met with ill conceived policy to the way in which we manage the land. A systems analysis will likely show multiple points of failure.

Our current focus needs to be with those affected, dislocated and devastated by the fires. Once we are sure that these Australians are taken care of can we can look to prevention in the future. Climate policy will have to be on the agenda.

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