Saving lives by improving forest fire reporting in Portugal

Numerous wildfires have been raging in the past few months, taking many lives, injuring hundreds. Prototypes were built during a hackathon to help journalists report on those disasters.

Nicolas Magand
Nov 2, 2017 · 7 min read

More than 110 people have lost their lives this year alone in Portugal because of forest fires, hundred were injured, and dozens of villages were destroyed by flames. Earlier this month, ‘some 6,000 firefighters were deployed to battle the flames, and a state of emergency was declared over almost half of Portugal’s landmass’ according to a BBC report from 18 October 2017. 523 wildfires were registered during one single day that same week, while the month of September was the driest in 87 years.

The causes for the abundance of such deadly fires are numerous and well-documented. Climate change effects have extended the length of the fires season from two to five months, and the over-exploitation of eucalyptus trees have increased the severity of droughts and accelerate the spread of fires. The government is also under a lot of criticism, which eventually led to the minister of interior to resign, over persistent failures on implementing efficient fire-protection plans, and poor management of forest-covered, mostly private-owned lands.

Satellite image of the forest fires raging in Northern Portugal, summer 2005 – © NASA

A few months before the GEN Summit 2018 in Lisbon, on 27–28 October 2017, the Global Editors Network (GEN) and Público, with the support of Google News Lab and in partnership with Associação Portuguesa de Imprensa and IADE, gathered some of the best Portuguese media innovators in the country’s capital for a two-day hackathon to develop innovative news prototypes on the theme of wildfire reporting.

Twelve teams participated, each of them including a journalist, a developer, and a designer, representing different media outlets (Público, Expresso, Global Media Group, Gazeta Das Caldas, Rádio Renascença, Região de Leiria, Chicas Poderosas), media startups (Frames, Bright Pixel, Clustermedia Labs), or universities (IADE, UBI).

Professor Manuela Raposo Magalhaes, from the Instituto superior de agronomia, and Rina Tsubaki, from the European Forest Institute and former European Journalism Centre, shared some valuable insights on wildfire reporting. Tsubaki reminded the participants that the audience for such coverage was not only the general public, but also families of victims, policy makers, fire services, other newsrooms, both on a local, national, and international scale.

First challenge: Information overload

European Forest Institute and former EJC’s Rina Tsubaki, sharing insights on the coverage of wildfires with the Editors Lab participants.

Speed, accuracy, consistency, responsiveness, simplicity, transparency; when disaster strikes, those are the standards journalists have to aim for. The problem is that they usually have to face an overflow of information and very little time to sort through it efficiently. In such difficult circumstances, being more prepared is key (for example, by having a few dedicated Twitter lists for specific sources depending on topics for instance.)

The participants of the hackathon came up with a few prototypes to help journalists face this issue:

  1. Fire Timeline—built by Gazeta Das Caldas: A tool that allows the journalist of a small local newspaper to rapidly report a wildfire on the newsroom’s website.
  2. Localizador — built by Expresso: A tool that provides real time and geolocated information from official sources in a way that was easier and faster to read.
  3. Sinapse — built by IADE: A framework to convert exhaustive information on a wildfire into a visually appealing and objective interactive news board.
  4. 523, Fire data with context—built by Público and Bright Pixel: Allows journalists to search and compare many data points from various municipalities at a glance to contextualise each new fire outbreak.

Rita Costa, data journalist from the team (working at Público), explains the thinking behind the development of this project:

‘When you’re in a newsroom and you’re covering a wildfire tragedy, there’s a overflow of information coming up, without any context. That is what we wanted to do: Present some context to journalists regarding all these data. On the platform we want to build, you can search for the municipality where the fire started for instance, and you can see all relevant data: previous fires, demographic data, meteorological data, how many firemen are currently working on this fire, local news, etc. It makes it easier for journalists to find all this relevant information in one place, and easier to know if what is happening is normal, properly managed, or not.’

Screenshot from the prototype

Second challenge: User-generated content

It is very difficult to predict when, where and how wildfires happen (factors include heat and drought-levels, winds strength and direction, type of vegetation, etc.), and on-the-ground reporting can be very dangerous. User-generated content (UGC) is therefore one of the only sources of facts and images. Journalists need to be extra careful, and must not put their sources in danger, said Tsubaki.

Many teams of the Editors Lab chose to work on ways for journalists to have an easier, faster access to this UGC:

  1. That Way—built by Público: A tool presenting crowdsourced information on which roads might be too dangerous to take.
  2. Wildflare — built by UBI: A project that allows the journalist to easily retrieve and interpret, in real-time, information from an array of different social media groups’ posts.
  3. Jurnodesk—built by Região de Leiria: A location based research tool that curates UGC, local knowledge and mashup it with data from official sources.
  4. Immersive Media OTT Platform — built by Clustermedia Labs: A video platform gathering content from on-the-ground sources.

Third challenge: The ‘before and after’ of a disaster

Reporters can work on saving lives by shifting their coverage to the ‘before’ period. By producing articles on the safety guidelines, rising awareness on the risks and the causes of the wildfires can, in the long run, diminish the number of fatalities.

  1. ContreFactos—built by Rádio Renascença: A platform aimed at empowering the citizens to hold their local leaders accountable for the implementation of wildfire prevention measures in their municipality.
  2. LAH, Life After Hell—built by Chicas Poderosas: A platform to show the scale of the impacts of the fires, and to help all victims to recover on an economic level.
  3. Focus—built by Frames: A tool aim to foster awareness on the consequences of wildfires through locals experience.
  4. Ajudar Nos Fogos — built by Global Media Group: An aggregator for all the request for help from local communities, non-profits organisations, companies and even individuals.

Conclusion of the hackathon

Every prototype was finally presented in front of a jury of experts. The jury composed of Carlos Eugénio (Visa Press), Catarina Carvalho (Global Media Group), José Moreno (Motorpress Lisboa), professor Manuela Raposo Magalhães and GEN’s Sarah Toporoff.

The winning prototype, 523: Fire fata with context, was voted best by the jury ‘because it combined a very easy to use interface and a good use of technology: This is what journalists need,’ said Catarina Carvalho, editor-in-chief of Global Media Group.

Jury member Carlos Eugénio, CEO of Visapress, told us why he also voted for this prototype:

‘The 21st century journalist has to write about everything. Working on the sources of the information he receives, and display this information the right way, is most useful to the journalist. By doing this, these projects all tend to make the journalist’s job easier. Presenting journalists with fresh, easy to use, and correct information was the main goal of the winning project, and I think they managed to do just that.’

The team from Público and Bright Pixel will get to compete in the Editors Lab Final at the GEN Summit 2018 in Lisbon, 30 May-1 June 2018, facing off with the winning teams from the sixth season of the programme.

Special mentions were awarded to UBI for Wildflare, and Expresso for Localizador.

The winners: Isa Costa (web designer, Bright Pixel), João Pina, and Rita Costa (Público)
Editors Lab teams at work

Editors Lab Impact

Prototyping the future of news

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