Vic Govt limited Google's bushfire map

Vic Govt limited Google's bushfire map

Summary: The Victorian Government's refusal to provide data for Google's bushfire map mashup limited its scope and highlighted glaring problems with Crown copyright provisions, the search giant's top Australian engineer said yesterday.


The Victorian Government's refusal to provide data for Google's bushfire map mashup limited its scope and highlighted glaring problems with Crown copyright provisions, the search giant's top Australian engineer said yesterday.

With over 1 million page views since Sunday, the Google Map overlay showing Victoria's bushfires has been invaluable for tracking the extent of the disaster.

Google Australia engineering director Alan Noble told the Broadband and Beyond conference in Melbourne yesterday that he became involved with the bushfire mapping effort after Google engineers woke in shock Sunday morning to read about the horrific fires unfolding east of Melbourne, which have claimed nearly 200 lives.

Noticing the Country Fire Authority (CFA) website was already struggling to keep up with demand for its online list of bushfire updates, Noble's team had the idea of overlaying the data onto Google Maps to produce a real-time map of the fires' locations and intensities. The CFA, which manages fires on private lands and has therefore remained at the front line of the devastating fires, consented — and within four hours, the new map was live.

The search giant's search for data to plot fires on public lands — which are managed by the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) — produced an entirely different result. With no public feed of the fires' location and an explicit denial of permission to access its own internal data, the engineers were ultimately unable to plot that data on the map as well.

It's ironic that I can download detailed NASA satellite imagery [of Australia] more readily than I can get satellite imagery from the Australian government

Google's Alan Noble

The culprit, according to Noble: legally established Crown copyright provisions, which assign copyright over all government-produced information to the government and prevent its use without explicit consent. Crown copyright is well established in Commonwealth law, but runs contrary to data protection provisions in countries like the US, where data produced by government agencies is held to be in the public domain.

Noble said the engineers' experience this week was an example of why Commonwealth data protection provisions must be relaxed to promote open access to publicly relevant information. "It's ironic that I can download detailed NASA satellite imagery [of Australia] more readily than I can get satellite imagery from the Australian government," he told the conference.

The bushfire situation wasn't the first time Google has crossed swords with Crown copyright. The company had similar problems recently when it asked the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aging for access to the data in the National Public Toilet Map, which it sought to offer as an overlay to Google Maps.

However, Google Loo was not to be: citing protection of the data under Crown copyright, the government refused to provide that information. Google's fight to open up government information sources follows on from earlier advice, in reviews like the Copyright Law Review Committee's 2005 inquiry, that government-produced data be made more freely available.

In a formal submission (PDF) to the Victorian Government last year, Google Australia argued that "there are considerable benefits that would flow to the Victorian Government and the wider Victorian community from the unfettered availability of publicly funded, non-confidential government information ... By making public sector information available to all organisations on the same terms, there would be an equal playing field for the creation of innovative products."

Google's Alan Noble (Credit: Google)

Many private enterprises have been similarly reluctant to provide information: the recently launched Google PowerMeter initiative, for example, is all about surfacing relevant usage information to drive smarter energy usage. "We've been very disappointed with the amount of information utilities generally provide to customers," Noble explained. "Where people can efficiently and easily monitor their power consumption, just having visibility into their usage is enough to cut power usage by as much as 15 per cent."

The need for open data has become even more pressing with the rise of geospatial mapping, Noble said. Google Maps has become an immensely popular way of representing geographically-linked data in everything from scientific endeavour to real estate. With the platform's application programming interfaces (APIs) open to all developers, Noble said the company's goal is to let any developer add mapping capabilities to represent information in new ways.

Fully 60 per cent of the hits to Google Maps, he revealed, come through the APIs — indicating that they were from third-party sites. "When you open up all this information," Noble said, "it fuels innovation in ways we can't predict. APIs allow developers to build new products from existing components very, very quickly." Sites like Google Maps Mania track interesting uses of Google Maps to display specific data sets.

Noble sees the widespread availability of APIs as one of two critical engines for growth in online applications. The other, gadgets, "are doing for applications what RSS is doing for content," he said, by allowing websites to integrate fully-featured capabilities from other sites and create "third-party mashups" that combine best-of-breed functionality in new ways.

"We're seeing billions and billions of page views every week," he explained. "No one company could achieve that kind of scale. And the thing that makes this possible is the openness and innovation that open APIs and open data sets enable."

Topics: Government, Government AU


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  • outraged

    I too am outraged with crown copyright. This information needs to be freely available to the public for anyone to use for any purpose. At the moment use of government created data for innovative and useful purposes is stalled by recuring that every single prospective use be approved and secondly allowing discrimination as the government can freely choose by who and how their data gets used.

    On the up side the federal government is looking into this matter (
  • Its disgusting

    How precious can a government agency get about providing access to PUBLIC information?

    Google is probably only one of a few service providers who could cope with the immense load events like the firestorm create.

    The policy makers, the senior managers and the communications advisors need to wake up and get into the 21st century. We're not talking about access to state secrets or personal information.

    Projects like the public toilet map are a convenience.

    Vital information about government services, local conditions, evacuation statuses etc in the middle of a crisis can save lives.

    In the long run will anyone be held accountable for this failing? Not likely. All we can do is keep demanding for access to OUR information. After all its OUR tax dollars that pay for it.
  • Bushfires on Google Map

    A bit of confusion in this article - CFA = Country Fire Authority, a State Government entity, not Commonwealth; Crown copyright is a State issue, not a Commonwealth one - copyright on Commonwealth Government data is under a different set of rules.

    One issue which has been of concern from almost day one is "who owns the data?". The funds spent acquiring data, creating databases, etc by government entities came from the taxpayer, and therefore the taxpayer should reap some return from those who would use such data to make a profit. You don't get to use government land to earn an income without some form of lease or licence; why is data any different?

    The other issue is liability. Who is responsible if someone uses the data for some use for which is was not intended and/or for which it is not suitable? Where does the buck stop if someone relies on live data, such as the location of a fire front, and makes life-threatening decisions based on that data.

    No wonder the DSE refused - they have enough to do as it is without worrying about how their data is being interpreted by others. They would be gathering information from a multitude of sources - how would it be possible to analyse, assess and translate this into digital form for publication? Some decisions/interpretations are made purely on local knowledge and experience.

    I detect a definite attitude of arrogance from Google - how dare they refuse to give us access to government data! Just because the USA government makes it free doesn't imply everyone else should follow. There is no irony in the fact that satellite data of Australia can be obtained from NASA for free, just a different business model - NASA don't see a need to get a return from their product.

    Google derive their income from the advertising they display on their web-pages. They need to continue to enhance their offerings to sell the advertising. But the fact that the rest of the world doesn't want to, or can't, conform to their business model does not justify the arrogance demonstrated in this article.

    Those who propose these concepts ought to spend a bit more time in the real world.
  • Bushfires on Google Map

    An update and another opinion on my previous comment -,1518,606669,00.html
  • Liability a sticky issue. Or is it?

    The CFA slipup was the result of a brain slip, apologies for that. CFA is indeed the Country Fire Authority.

    Your point about liability is interesting. There is always a risk of people misinterpreting the data but one could argue that the onus for use of freely available data lies with the organisation using it. But it would of course not work that way -- someone could well end up making the wrong decisions and blaming the information.

    Which begs the question: is wrong information, or correct information used the wrong way, better or worse than no information at all? Could someone sue the DSE for not providing bushfire information, which caused them to not be aware of dangerous bushfires in their area, which caused them to delay their preparations or flee too late? Can there be guilt by omission?

    And what of the toilets example? Is there a logical case to be made for withholding free and ready access to information about the location of public toilets?

    And while it's easy to question Google's motives for wanting more and more advertising -- and doing it by overlaying information about everything imaginable on Google Maps -- one could also argue that the government's duty is to collect information to improve the quality of life of its citizens, and that no benefit is gained by withholding that data as long as it doesn't compromise national security or have other effects.

    No clear answers of course but very good questions. Certainly an issue worth revisiting to weigh risks vs benefits to the public good.
  • Google Bushfire Maps

    This is insane. My family has spent the week desperate for news of a property in Buxton. As we border DSE territory the fire maps have been showing all clear when we know from people up there that the situation is anything but. The Maroondah Hwy is still closed from Healesville to Taggerty but there are no fires displaying after Healesville. This isn't just ridiculous. It's dangerous.
  • Google Bushfire Maps

    The above comment confirms two of my points - Google has been irresponsible in showing 'all clear', when in fact they should have been showing 'no data'; and individuals using the data for purposes for which it was not intended (ie not intended to be used for life-threatening situations, merely an overview of the total situation).

    If I were you I'd be contacting the CFA and DSE direct and not relying on thirdhand information.

    Check out this website for further comment -,1518,606669,00.html
  • When does a 'public toilet' become 'not public'?

    I think the 'public toilet' info is the ultimate example of the states working vigorously against the public good.

    If the toilets are "public" then presumably their location MUST be "public knowledge". And who can suppress the on-transmittal of information which is already in the public domain?

    At what point does the public toilet become non-public on the basis that the state does not want its location known?

    Google should simply have 'lifted' the information concerning the location of each such toilet and added it to Google Maps, in the same way as Telstra etc take the location of fixed speed cameras (state-controlled devices) and add them to their GPS maps etc. Any public servant that was contemplating a legal claim against any party showing the location of a public toilet on any map, (for the purpose of the public making use of the convenience) would need counselling.

    And it goes further. NSW Maritime have for a decade or so put up 'intentionally knobbled' (unusably coarse) maps of NSW ports and waterways on its website, to encourage you to purchase the plastic-covered versions they sell. But what about cruising yachts off the coast wondering what the lights signals are and where the reefs/buoys/jetties are, to enter an unplanned port during a storm? Ought they order it on-line and await AusPost's failed delivery?

    Safety organisations should work out if they are there for the public safety, or are private publishing houses with a profit motive... 'cause usually these goals collide. ALL safety information should be available FREE online, and if you want the printed/bound/plasticised versions, you can pay.

    The same logic applies to Australian Standards, whereby the compliance would be FAR higher if all standards were available free on-line, rather than being sold for outrageous prices.
  • Frustrated

    Another fine example of Google's cavalier attitude to spatial data quality and a clear lack of understanding of spatial data representation. Plotting fires on map as point features and allowing users to view those features at a large scale (street-level) is careless and is a meaningless representation. They neglect to clearly inform users that it is not a complete representation and nor is it fit for those at risk from the fires to make decisions.

    Does Google also expect the Government to hire and pay additional employees to package the data in such a way that it can be distributed to outside organisation, or do they simply expect to get free feed. Taxpayers are paying expects to collect the data in order to facilitate informed decision; not to provide a discount service.

    Utility companies are of course going to be sensitive with energy usage data. It is in their interests for energy consumption to be as high as possible under current pricing/retail schemes!

    I'll concede the toilet data is a curious case, but it is more likely that government was stumped on how to conduct the commercial aspects.
  • CFA

    FYI I have replaced "Commonwealth Fire Authority" with "Country Fire Authority" in this story.


    Renai LeMay
    News Editor
  • Maps not fit for purpose

    Unlike Google, the DSE clearly state the time they were last updated and advise "Do not rely on these maps to make decisions about personal safety." They also don't pretend to be able to map the fires 'in real time'. The DSE and CFA have people who can interpret the maps along with other information such as wind direction, the actual infrastrucure or material on the ground at risk and fire fighting experience to make informed decisions.
  • Bushfires on Google Map

    This comment confirms two of the points I made before. Firstly, Google should not be showing 'all clear' in areas where data is not available - it should be shown as 'no data'.

    Secondly, this is an obvious case of the data being used for a purpose for which it was not intended - the Google map should only be regarded as an overview, not a precise depiction of the situation.

    I would be contacting the CFA and DSE direct, rather than relying on the third hand information supplied by Google.

    Spatial data still requires all the checks and quality control used on any other data set, especially for critical scenarios.

    For further comment check out this article -,1518,606669,00.html
  • Bushfires on Google Map

    "One issue which has been of concern from almost day one is "who owns the data?". The funds spent acquiring data, creating databases, etc by government entities came from the taxpayer, and therefore the taxpayer should reap some return from those who would use such data to make a profit. You don't get to use government land to earn an income without some form of lease or licence; why is data any different?

    Governments (and their citizens) who are reluctant to learn and implement progressive policies and practices from other older industrialized countries are doomed to fall further behind each year.

    "Data" is the life-blood of all modern societies. The free availability of accurate, regularly-updated data is absolutely essential to the efficient running of all modern societies. Many countries are smart enough to realize this, and make their massive data-bases freely available (via the web) to all their citizens. Sadly in the year of Darwin's 200th anniversary, we still haven't reached that stage of evolution. However "the government" in 1967, did manage to discover that aborigines were in fact human beings, just like us, and promptly gave them the right to vote.

    Why is government land any different to data. Quite simply, the government did not use our taxes to buy, collect or "manufacture" government land. In 1788 thanks to the decree of Terria Nullius, the "government" of Australia automatically gave itself ownership of ALL the land, and has since then, made billions of $$$'s selling or leasing this land to its citizens. How else could we have designed, funded, and produced the worlds six best submarines, the world famous Collins Class.

    Google, myself, and millions of other inquisitive Ozzies are not complaining about having to pay a fee to access government data, we are complaining about the fact that the "Government" REFUSES all access to the data, claiming "Government Copyright" or some other feeble excuse.

    e.g. The GAF Nomad aircraft was one of our "great" contributions to aircraft design in the 20th century. Numerous pilots, passengers and members of the armed services died unnecessarily as a result of shortcomings in its design and certification. If you were unfortunate enough to have had a close friend or relative die in the Nomad, just try getting any Government Department in our country to give you full access to all the information they have on the Nomad and its design and performance shortcomings.

    In any progressive democratic society the Government is elected to serve the long term aspirations of the majority of its citizens, we are not here to serve the arbitrary political whims of the (short-term) government of the day.
  • Storm in a tea cup

    What maks Google so special? What's wrong with viewing the data on the CFA website in tex form? Google makes money out of the services they provide either directly or indirectly so it would be fair to assume that they should pay for any data they want to acquire from our governments.

    It's about time that all the Google nutters in the joint stopped treating Google like a false idol. Google is a company. If they want to provide products and services then they should buy them, not expect to get them for nothing whilst making billions in profits.

    This has nothing to do with people's safety at all. If it did then you'd be able to sue Google if a loved-one relied on their map and then got burnt in a fire. Think about it and come back to reality people.
  • Poor little Google

    Boo hoo, poor little Google. The DSE didn't jump when Google rang them up. As others have pointed out, there is a lot more to the presentation of emergency services data than putting it on a pretty little Google map.

    Kudos to DSE for telling Google to wait their turn, and CFA might want to re-think their response.

    Residents could die if Google's representations became stale or were presented with unwarranted precision due to some graphic designer's decision. I would bet Google's lawyers have ensured liability would lay with taxpayers, not the big G.
  • google motivation

    I'd be a little more inclined to sympathise if Google were honest about their motivation. All Google wants is sensational content to drive traffic, and thus revenue across their site.

    They have no concern with accuracy, liability or public good. The sanctimonious tripe coming from the Google mouthpiece was arrant hypocrisy
  • It's not about Google, but putting info out

    The issue is not about Google, but rather about putting out info, including 'where' info, on a timely basis, esp during an emergency.
    Most people will not know what govt dept's web site to go to for each such emergency, and I'd say there is about a 0.0001 chance it will be 'live' or even moderately current...
    I was away all weekend, then watched the Channel 7 Sunrise coverage from 8am till 11am Monday, shocked at the scenes on national TV, waiting for the location graphic. At no time in those three hours did Channel 7 News delineate where the emergency was, how widespread it was, or what adjoining areas were at risk, or such people ought to do.
    What with more and more people being able to see web-sourced image data on their phones, I think the relevant authority ought make sure that all known data is conveyed to the public, through all possible channels... and times of emergency are not the time to seek to negotiate a royalty basis, nor to exclude data on the basis of copyright (unless personal data would be disclosed).
    From what I saw, none of the free-to-air networks had any map graphics, presumably because they did not know the areas to show. This confirms poor information dissemination by CFA. All those people in neighbouring towns should have been able to see the info, and all the relatives in Melbourne and interstate would not have been phoning constantly seeking to discover if loved one's areas were at risk.
    Yes, let's have sirens, and geographically-ranged SMS emergency alerts, but let's also see that authorities do a better job in getting out the information.
  • stumped by commercial apsects of toilet

    Anonymous is right about the commercial constriants - the private sector company engaged by the public sector agency to produce the toilet location data set has the IP and has refused to allow it to be further distributed.

    now tell me how the naughty ole government is to blame
  • Google Who?

    Google aren't the official source of ANY data, so why would anyone in their right mind get out of date information from Google? Official sources are OFFICIAL sources, not a bunch of people with useless university education from the USA thinking they OWN the world.

    Everyone hates the USA enough without Google adding to the debate!

    Who do they think they are? Google think they own all the world's data do they? Maybe we should legislate AGAINST Google in Australia so they don't violate Copyright any more than the billions of times they already do each week.
  • Ring the phone number idiot!

    There's plenty of information available from the phone numbers provided by EVERY media outlet. You can ring these every minute if required and get more accurate info than those grubby Americans will ever get their hands on