Watch Duty, Crowdsourced Wildfire App, Tracks All California Fires

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The app launched in August 2021, at the height of the 2021 fire season, which in California typically falls between June and October. At launch, the app only covered Sonoma County in California. On June 1, 2022, Watch Duty expanded its reach to cover all of California. So far it has been downloaded by a quarter of a million people.

Its popularity surprised its founder, software developer John Mills. “We had 22,000 users about four days after launch in Sonoma County,” Mills says.

Watch Duty’s popularity is likely a result of its simplicity. Social media provides (pardon the pun) a wealth of information, not all of it relevant. People seeking timely emergency information are often inundated with trolls, misinformation, retweets of the same photo over and over and all the general chaos one would expect on a place like Twitter. You can follow hashtags for specific fires, but even those are blocked by well-meaning non-sequences or bots designed to spam any viral trend. Watch Duty strips all superfluous chatter from Twitter and shoots straight for its main purpose: telling people where a fire is right now and where it’s heading.

To do this, the application relies on updates provided by its volunteer “reporters”. They are locals, scanner enthusiasts, and social media firefighter group moderators. None of them are affiliated with official agencies, but many rely on years of experience monitoring wildfires.

“These people have tens or hundreds of thousands of followers, and they already have the respect of the community,” Mills says. “Now we just gave them a platform. It was kind of a key here, like, how can we help these people do their jobs better? »

Michael Silvester runs @CAFireScanner, one of Fire Twitter’s largest accounts. Last spring, a Watch Duty developer approached him and asked him what he would like from a fire-focused alert service. When the app officially launched, Silvester was asked to participate as a reporter. Skeptical at first, Silvester says he now spends more time posting updates to Watch Duty than tweeting to his 125,000 Twitter followers.

“Twitter is a bit of a mess,” Silvester says. “Most social media platforms are a mess. Watch Duty just gives you this information without any chatter, without people posting their political and other opinions.

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The app resonated with people in the land of the fires. Catherine Carannante is relatively new to California. She and her husband are building a home in rural Amador County, east of Sacramento and south of Lake Tahoe. She says they knew what they were getting into, moving into the powder keg that is the Sierra Nevada.

“It was just a nightmare to find up-to-date information on the fires,” says Carannante. There is a single lane road in and out of the property. Because of this limited access, she worries that an official evacuation order won’t come soon enough. “We need a long time to evacuate, it won’t work for the county to just say, ‘Hey, you have to get out and you have 10 minutes. “”

During the Electra Fire last July, Carannante saw posts on Nextdoor about Watch Duty, and she decided to download the app.

“It was just amazing because you had a place that gave you a map with regular updates in normal human language, not this jargon that’s really hard to understand,” Carannante says. “And it was real-time updates. You didn’t have to wait 12 hours for an update.

Watch Duty currently only covers California, but Mills doesn’t plan to stop there. The Watch Duty map is built on OpenStreetMap, a community mapping platform. Pinch to zoom out on the app screen and you can see the whole world, much more than Watch Duty’s current coverage area.

“We’re going to keep pushing,” Mills said. “It’s not just about fires, it’s about emergencies and disasters. So you can imagine how deep the rabbit hole goes.



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