Richard Rennie spoke to company head Rob Gourdie about how the company is helping keep better track of humans and animals before, during and after natural disasters.
The concept of keeping better track of the non-human victims of a natural disaster comes from Rob Gourdie’s emergency worker experience in the Christchurch earthquake when he experienced first-hand the challenges of gathering data on people, their location and their health under extremely difficult conditions.
During a Start-up Weekend run by the New Zealand Defence Force last year Situate Me was formed and developed virtual disaster assistant Ema, a compassionate chat-bot, to do online welfare needs assessments with people in a conversational manner while collecting information on an individual’s location and food and water status.
In its latest iteration, Ema for Animals, the chat-bot works for those that can’t speak for themselves, whether they be production livestock or domestic pets.
The concept was prompted by a conversation Gourdie had with Auckland City Council animal control bosses who have 100,000 dogs on their database.
“But the ones that are of most interest to them are the ones that are unattended at any given time and particularly during a natural disaster.”
Similarly for livestock, the ability to register their location before or during an unfolding disaster along with the location of supporting assets like water troughs, supplementary feed and loading races provides valuable disaster management information.
“Once the location is geo-mapped, emergency authorities can access that via a secure online map and allocate people and resources to manage those animals. For example, that could be to send a vet to check the animals’ welfare.”
The Tasman fire last summer would have been an ideal platform to test Ema had it been already developed. Desperate farmers breached cordons to tend to livestock, some which was evacuated to the Richmond showgrounds.
Gourdie, a psychology graduate, appreciates the value taking control in an apparently uncontrollable event can have on people’s wellbeing.
“People are in a highly adrenal state, their cognitive processes shut down, they do not want a three-page questionnaire to fill in on their livestock’s status.”
Instead, a bot is a non-judgemental, easy response tool that can be loaded onto a website, the information on whereabouts/species etc can all be entered in.
“It takes a lot of the anxiety away that farmers would feel in such an event and gives them confidence the authorities have the information they need about their stock.”
Because using the bot in an emergency must be child’s play the company has tested its questions on 11-year-olds. These digital natives will soon find any fault in the bot’s logic and they can also help distill bot questions into simple, informative wording.
New Zealanders are becoming more familiar interacting with bots, with Air NZ’s award-winning Oscar bot the highest profile to date helping answer more than 400 questions.
“This is a contingent bot that could be loaded onto a website in the event of a disaster or emergency, whether it is Rural Support, Ministry for Primary Industries or Fed Farmers, for example.”
In the case of a known disaster’s arrival, like a cyclone, the ability to register livestock whereabouts and the status of people in rural communities in advance will help with resource allocation whether they be rescuers, choppers, food or water supplies in the hours or days after the event.
“Authorities will be able to paint in green, red or orange zones based on known needs and the degree of impact of the event.
The bot also has uses in helping marshal the best possible use of volunteers that typically come forward after such events.
“We have had strong interest in Australia for rural fires as a spontaneous volunteer registration tool.”
Recent floods and fires across the Tasman have had more than 20,000 people register to help clean up.
“But the risk profile around using volunteers significantly declines even if they are just registered. The bot enables them to register but also to include any useful skills, perhaps as drivers or machinery operators.”
Clean-up authorities can then paint a picture quickly of the skills their flood of volunteers offer and allocate tasks more efficiently as a result.
While the Tasman fire came too soon for Situate Me to offer the bot it is only a few months till it will be capable of being linked to an elected site in event of a natural disaster.
“And being NZ, it can only be a matter of time before we do have another event come along.”