SKFloods Helps Citizens Report Flooding In Saskatchewan

Today The Star Phoenix and The Leader Post ran an article on the Saskatchewan Flood map initiative I’m organizing in Saskatchewan, along side Laura Madison whose coordinating a similar efforts in Manitoba.

A local software developer hopes to turn a trickle of data into a deluge of spring flood information for a new online project that aims to better prepare Saskatchewan for a crisis.

Dale Zak has created skfloods.ca, an online Saskatchewan flood map that encourages anyone with an Internet connection to contribute real-time news about floods, flood preparations, road closures and other information that might help people in a crisis.

“People affected by a crisis know the most about a particular situation they find themselves in,” Zak said. “I think it is a powerful way to allow citizens to share stories and information.”

The first of its kind in Canada, the project could make Saskatchewan a leader in interactive mapping, Zak said.

Powered by citizen contributors, Zak’s map solicits reports from people on the ground. People can submit a report by email, Twitter or through Android and iPhone apps.

Information can focus on emergency services, sandbagging efforts, evacuations, electrical outages and anything else floodrelated.

The data is displayed through icons on a map of Saskatchewan to help people quickly find information pertinent to their area.

Citizen reports are verified by volunteer administrators to ensure accuracy, an im-portant approach for a project that targets turbulent situations in which false information can harm relief efforts, Zak said.

Zak created the map using software developed by Ushahidi, a Kenya-based nongovernmental organization that develops open-source software.

Ushahidi, Swahili for “testimony,” started by mapping violent clashes following the disputed 2007 Kenyan presidential election.

Since then, Ushahidi’s free software has been used during the Libyan conflict, the Australian floods and to aid recovery and rescue efforts following earthquakes in Haiti and Japan.

In Haiti, citizens used text messages to update the map with information about aid services, security threats and injured or trapped residents, said Zak, a Ushahidi volunteer for 2 1 /2 years.

“There was literally no government communications system, so they used Ushahidi,” Zak said. “Rescuers were pulling people from the rubble based on Ushahidi information.”

In Saskatchewan, the provincial government has already established a flood information website at saskflood.ca, but Zak said the website offers no mobility access or a way to contribute data.

“We’re no longer just consumers of information, we’re contributors and creators,” he said.

Zak has approached government officials about helping with his interactive map, but so far he hasn’t had much luck. He said his map could use the province’s realtime information about a flooding crisis to improve its services.

Using open-source software means anyone can take the skeleton of the map and change it to suit the needs of a particular situation. If new groups find better ways to use the maps, changes can be incorporated for future projects.

“It’s an evolving, organic process where people use it, improve and then feed it back to everyone else,” Zak said.

The software could be used in Saskatchewan for other crisis events, such as forest fires.

Now that the flood website is in operation, the hard work is done, Zak said. The map will remain year after year and all it needs is for people to feed it snippets of information.

“There’s a lot of potential here for giving people a voice,” he said.