Sara Rubin here, reading real-time updates on various California wildfires– fortunately, today, none in Monterey County – from an app on my phone. Watch Duty launched last year in a few counties (Sonoma, Lake, Napa, and Mendocino) and is rolling out statewide today. It has seen some 5,000 new registrations in the past 24 hours.
Watch Duty CEO John Mills describes the app as the emergency alert system the public deserves, but that public bodies have not been able to create. People need and want real-time information, and in the absence of a functioning public notification tool, they turn to fire watchers on blogs and social media.
It’s a pattern we know all too well here in Monterey County. Cal Fire can be unreachable and emergency notifications can be slow and difficult to decipher. Instead, many rely on people who live in fire-prone areas to provide real-time updates, like Kate Novoa, aka Big Sur Kate, who has been blogging since 2008. She has become the most close to an official source of information for all. news related to emergencies and evacuation in Big Sur, with people providing photos of smoke and reporting what looks like wildfires before there was even an official announcement.
And Novoa is part of Watch Duty’s expanded number of fire reportersthus far its sole contributor from Monterey County.
The idea behind the app is not to rely solely on slow government officials, but about scanner-listeners and fire watchers like Novoa, people who are trusted to provide credible and meaningful information. App contributors must adhere to a code of conduct that prohibits them from posting hearsay or speculation, and from correcting anything they post in error.
Much of what Watch Duty has done to date is to entice fire watchers like Novoa to participate, and publish on Watch Duty instead of (or in addition to) their own sites. “The hardest part was convincing everyone that we weren’t trying to start a business to make money, we were trying to solve a problem that they were all trying to solve on their own,” says Miller.
It is essential to rely on people, not on technology, he says, when it comes to interpreting and reporting meaningful information. “We’re not trying to replace humanity with a BS robot,” he says. “It’s humans living here, it’s not something that can be done by machine.”
The app relies on real people (like Novoa and its counterparts for that matter), as well as robots that read scanners and 911 feeds, then alert real humans who interpret what they see. It’s a collaborative effort, with lots of discussions on Slack. “Moving fast and breaking things is a Silicon Valley mantra that really doesn’t work when it comes to people’s lives and safety,” Mills says.
Mills has a software background and moved during the pandemic from San Francisco to Sonoma County. He quickly became familiar with the harsh realities of life in the land of the fires and he immersed himself in learning – he went on car rides and trained in forest firefighting.
“I realized that there was not a lot of intelligence” he says. “Rather than 45 minutes after a fire started and you’re told to leave and it’s like ‘Oh fuck, I didn’t even know there was a fire’, I’d rather arm the citizens of information.”
Since launching in a handful of counties last August, Mills says there has already been a real-time impact. Schools and hospitals decided to evacuate based on information on Watch Duty, and someone brought a bulldozer to a neighbor’s property to save him.
Mills plans to increase the coverage area and the number of contributors. He plans to eventually create a training program for attendees who might be less established than people like Novoa, with years of experience, and they want to create redundancy — sometimes it’s the bloggers who have to evacuate first.
Mills also says he doesn’t need to make money on the app—the 40-year-old has already done quite well in business, he says, so it’s a nonprofit model. To be sustainable, the organization will sell data, but it will always remain free to use. And once it’s perfected in California for fires, he plans to expand it to fill the emergency communications void everywhere, for all types of emergencies, from fires to floods and hurricanes.
“We are trying to solve the disaster warning system,” he says.
This is something the public sector should have figured out a long time ago, but they didn’t.. In this absence, Watch Duty may be able to save lives and property. I’ll watch to see how it goes.
Read the full newsletter here.