South Australia to dump third party app after failure to alert on bushfires

The Alert SA app, delivered by Victorian company Ripe Intelligence, crashed on Saturday as bushfires smouldered throughout South Australia.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The South Australian government will dump a smartphone app designed to send emergency warnings to people after it crashed during catastrophic bushfire conditions at the weekend.

On Saturday and Sunday, Australia experienced a heatwave, with some parts of the country reaching 47.3 degrees Celsius. At least two homes and other buildings were lost in a dangerous bushfire that raged through South Australia's southeast.

The fire was among about 40 incidents requiring SA Country Fire Service (CFS) attention on Saturday, and on Sunday a fire also destroyed grassland at Carrickalinga, south of Adelaide.

The Alert SA app crashed on Saturday as the serious bushfire raged in the state's southeast, and as the other fires were also burning.

Emergency Services Minister Chris Picton said Victorian company Ripe Intelligence, the firm behind the Alert SA app, could not provide the necessary assurances that such a failure wouldn't happen again.

On that basis, the state's emergency services will no longer support use of the app and will not renew the AU$284,000 contract with Ripe when it expires in June, instead Picton said it is opting to work on developing its own mobile phone warning system.

"Yesterday's outage of the Alert SA app was a disgrace," he said on Sunday. "On the day when South Australians faced the worst fire danger conditions seen in years, the Alert SA app needed to perform and it didn't."

The minister said South Australians should no longer rely on the app but rather traditional sources of information including the CFS website, emergency service social media pages, the Bushfire Information Hotline, and ABC radio alerts.

On Monday, the state's Premier Jay Weatherill said Ripe Intelligence was selected for its track record in the sector and that it was was contracted to provide 99.9 percent reliability. But Weatherill said Ripe Intelligence did not deliver the service promised and the SA government is now considering legal action against the company.

"They've manifestly failed us here and so we'll be pursuing our rights against them," he said.

Weatherill called the failure "disgraceful" and admitted the situation was an embarrassment for the government.

Alert SA also went down for several hours in October.

South Australia Police announced in November it would be using its automated number plate recognition system to track people known to be at risk of starting fires during the 2017-18 bushfire season.

Assistant Commissioner for South Australia Police Noel Bamford said the technology is being used as a mechanism for preventing bushfires across the state under Operation Nomad until May 2018.

"Police monitoring includes maintaining an index of specific vehicles of interest in our Mobile Automated Number Plate recognition system," Bamford explained.

The state's police had used the system last year to identify 86 persons of interest, with 15 of those arrested for fire starting and related offences.

South Australia Police a year ago similarly began using facial-recognition technology to identify persons of interest and missing persons, though it did not say whether this system would be used under Operation Nomad.

In November, the Research, Development and Innovation Bill 2017 was introduced that would allow the SA government to make a declaration that its laws do not apply to a research project.

"To the extent that the governor considers necessary for the purposes of the project or activity and subject to this section, provide that an Act, specified provision of an Act, or any other law does not apply, or applies with specified modifications, in respect of the project or activity," the Bill states.

However, the proposed legislation was set aside by the government a few days later.

"Today I spoke against this sneaky government Bill," South Australian Greens MLC Tammy Franks said in December. "While the Greens have always supported research, development, and innovation, this Bill would effectively be able to suspend over 500 current laws at the stroke of a pen for a Research and Development Declaration.

"We've stopped this Bill for the moment, but I suspect it will be back with a vengeance next year. We'll be keeping our eyes on this one," she concluded.

The Bill was criticised by the Law Society of South Australia for not containing appropriate safeguards, and for allowing acts undertaken in good faith under a declaration to be deemed lawful.

"Someone may be acting in an unlawful manner, be seriously misguided, and yet act in good faith. That such action would be considered lawful and binding, particularly in the circumstances proposed of no liability on the part of the government or potentially acting in reference to the declaration, for such action, is plainly inappropriate," the Law Society said in a submission.

Meanwhile, the state government denied in October that the permissions its mySA GOV app requires for state residents to take advantage of the newly introduced digital driver's licence regime is intended to inappropriately access private information.

Digital licences became available in October in the mySA GOV smartphone app, developed by Appviation and launched in May. However, questions were raised as to why the digital licence feature -- which provides "ready access to licence information and proof of age identification for front line police officers" -- requires access to "camera", "contacts", "storage", and "telephone".

The SA government told ZDNet that the app "does not have access to your personal contacts at all".

"The specific permission the app requests is the 'find accounts on the device' permission, which is found in the 'contacts' group. This is used to connect to the mySA GOV account," the state government said.

Access to the phone's camera is so that the app can "validate other digital passes and licences".

With AAP


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AlertSA app

Image: South Australia CFS
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