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What do I need to work from home due to coronavirus? | Technology

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What do I need to work at home during the coronavirus outbreak? At this rate, we might all be working from home for a year! How will the broadband providers cope? Do we need a plan B? FranklySwiss

Everyone will need their own customised solution, but there are two things to think about. First, will you be working at home for two weeks or four months or possibly forever? I share the view that Covid-19 could cause a permanent shift towards home working.

Second, who is paying for homeworking equipment and services: you or your employer?

If you’ll only be working at home for a short time, you can probably get away with not buying much new equipment or signing up to remote working services. If you’re in for the long haul, try to match or preferably beat the equipment you would normally use in the office. If you can’t afford a ThinkPad T490s (£1,213.71), for example, get as close to the specification as possible.

If you are paying for your own kit, you may want to take an economical approach. But if the company is insisting that you work from home, ask for ergonomic equipment. This often costs more, but is worth it in the long run.

If your company has an IT department, then it should either supply or advise you on which equipment and software to use. This may well include a VPN and a two-factor authentication system, such as YubiKey.

One of the IT department’s jobs is to make choices for tens or even tens of thousands of employees. You may not like their choices – I usually don’t – but letting everybody pick their own collaborative software, messaging app or video conferencing system doesn’t work. Of course, this doesn’t prevent people from setting up unofficial groups on WhatsApp or Facebook.

The good news is that you may end up being more productive when you don’t spend hours commuting or in meetings, taking long lunches or catching up with the latest gossip.

The bad news is that you have to set and stick to office routines without the external pressure to turn up on time, take regular meal breaks, and keep to a reasonable sleep schedule. Every company has early birds and night owls, so their work times are likely to diverge. However, you must overlap during some agreed office hours when everyone is always available.

Self-discipline is why much of the advice about working from home includes things such as getting dressed for work, even though you might work just as well in your dressing gown. But if you talk to colleagues or customers over video links, you must keep up appearances. You will be judged.

Temporary office

Nice though it may be, your original iMac may not be up to the task of working from home.



Nice though it may be, your original iMac may not be up to the task of working from home. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

If you will only be working at home for a short time, you won’t need much in the way of extra equipment. If you have your own laptop, you will only need an external USB keyboard and mouse, and you may already have those. After that, you can think about a separate monitor, an external hard drive for backup purposes, and either a powered four-port USB hub or a docking station to connect them all together.

Laptops have bad ergonomics so you should not use them for sustained periods of work. You can solve this problem by making your laptop work like a desktop, by putting it on a commercial riser or a pile of books and plugging in an external keyboard and mouse. Your eyebrows should be roughly level with the top of the screen, so you can work without slouching.

Buy a docking station if you can. If you plug your laptop and all the peripherals into a docking station, you only need to unplug a single cable from the laptop to be able to take it somewhere else. That makes it easy to get a change of scene by working in another room or in the garden.

One major problem with working on a laptop is that most domestic tables and many desks are too high. Your arms should be angled slightly downwards when you are typing, not upwards. You can solve this problem by buying an accessory keyboard tray, where the keyboard sits under the table top, or an adjustable chair, where seat height is the key dimension. However, both of those are getting into home office territory.

Otherwise, the supreme law for working from home is thou shalt not lose thy work. Make hitting Ctrl-S (for save) a reflex action. Save files to your local hard drive and to an online drive (OneDrive is built into Windows 10), and back them up to an external hard drive or USB thumb drive. Even if you are saving your work on a company server or in an online office suite – such as Microsoft, Google or Zoho – you may need a local copy if your comms link goes down.

Permanent office

If you can set up a home office in a disused room then it’s a lot easier to get a set up that suits your work, whether it’s an ergonomically organised laptop on a riser or a multi-screen command and control centre.



If you can set up a home office in a disused room then it’s a lot easier to get a set up that suits your work, whether it’s an ergonomically organised laptop on a riser or a multi-screen command and control centre. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Much the best way to work at home is to set up a proper office in a spare bedroom, junk room, attic, conservatory, garden shed or David Cameron-style shepherd’s hut. If you have a family, your home office should have a door with a “keep out” or perhaps an “on air” sign. So many people are now making podcasts, video conferencing or appearing on live TV from home offices that studio-style “on air” signs – even neon ones – are becoming a thing. It helps avoid the spouse/partner and/or kids wandering in, to humorous effect.

Having dedicated office space means you can have a proper desk, an adjustable office chair, one or more large monitors and a desktop PC that will deliver more power than a laptop for less cost. You might even be tempted to buy a standing desk or a “desk riser” such as the Yo Yo Desk 90 (British) or the Varidesk Pro Plus 36. Sit-Stand.com has these and many other models.

For more advice, see my recent answer: How do I set up an ergonomic home office?

That answer didn’t cover video conferencing, which will be important for many people pushed out of their corporate nests. Even if it’s not essential for meetings, it’s useful for quick video chats with colleagues. This fosters camaraderie, especially if you start to feel lonely working on your own. It’s also easy to do, thanks to software such as Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts, TeamViewer and more.

You will look and sound a lot better if you buy a decent webcam with 1080p (Full HD) resolution. In previous answers, I’ve recommended the Logitech C920 HD Pro webcam with microphone. It’s still a good buy at £63.99, though there’s a newer C920S model at £84.99.

If you won’t shell out for a webcam, at least get a headset with a microphone. Gamers love them so there are all kinds of models available at reasonable prices. You can also use them to listen to music, thus eliminating background household and traffic noises.

Broadband matters

The UK’s broadband should be able to cope with everyone working from home, but it’s always wise to have a plan B in the shape of a portable hotspot or similar, which may be 5G if it has reached your area by now.



The UK’s broadband should be able to cope with everyone working from home, but it’s always wise to have a plan B in the shape of a portable hotspot or similar, which may be 5G if it has reached your area by now. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Broadband shouldn’t be a problem because peak usage is in the evenings when many people are streaming movies or TV or playing games such as Fortnite. Even if everyone starts video chatting, there is easily enough capacity for home workers during the day. However, you should either have an unlimited business broadband service, like me, or a cellular backup based on a mobile router like a Mifi or tethering a smartphone or whatever.

Either way, your plan B should include an alternative device – a smartphone or tablet with a Bluetooth keyboard, or a spare laptop – and an alternative way of connecting to the office, even if it means using a hotspot while parked outside a local coffee shop. Sort out all the log-in and connection details and test it before you actually need it. You probably won’t be able to do much work without an internet connection.

Top tip

Almost every operating system supports multiple users, so set up a separate account for work. Make this account look as much like your office PC as possible, with the same wallpaper and the same icons in much the same places. That way, you won’t be distracted by whatever games, social media or entertainment services you use when not working.

Using a separate account eliminates all your personal websites from your browsers and browser tabs. Having PornHub loaded is never a good look, even if you don’t accidentally switch to it.

Have you got a question? Email it to [email protected]

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Zoom Deleted Events Discussing Zoom “Censorship”

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Zoom shut down a series of events meant to discuss what organizers called “censorship” by the company.

The events were planned for Oct. 23, and were organized in response to a previous cancellation by Zoom of a San Francisco State University talk by Leila Khalid, a member of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a designated terror organization in the US. Khalid is best known for highjacking two planes, one in 1969 and one in 1970.

Zoom told the Verge at the time that the Sept. 23 talk was in violation of the company’s terms of service. The Verge also reported that the action was in response to pressure by Jewish and Israel lobby groups, such as The Lawfare project.

Following the Sept. 23 cancellation, a group of academics organized a series of events across the country, as well as in Canada and the UK, which were meant to highlight the issue.

“Campuses across North America are joining in the campaign to resist corporate and university silencing of Palestinian narratives and Palestinian voices,” said the day of action event description, which was meant to be held on Oct. 23.

The follow-up events did not include Khalid presenting. The event held in part by New York University, which was canceled the day of, included a compilation of her previous statements, according to a blog post on the incident.

“Khaled is undergoing medical treatment and was unable to provide a voice message for the occasion,” the post stated.

“Zoom is committed to supporting the open exchange of ideas and conversations and does not have any policy preventing users from criticizing Zoom,” a spokesperson for the company said. “Zoom does not monitor events and will only take action if we receive reports about possible violations of our Terms of Service, Acceptable Use Policy, and Community Standards. Similar to the event held by San Francisco State University, we determined that this event was in violation of one or more of these policies and let the host know that they were not permitted to use Zoom for this particular event.”

However, Zoom did not respond to questions about which specific policy was violated or whether other events have been shut down by the company.

Adam Saeed, a student at University of Leeds, said he used his personal Zoom account to organize the event. He told BuzzFeed News that the company deleted his event and disabled his account without explanation. He contacted the company’s customer support line, but said he has not yet heard back.

“It cannot be a unilateral decision saying, ‘You violated our terms of use,’ they have to prove that,” he said. “We have to have the right to contest this and present our case.”

Andrew Roth, a professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU who organized the event in conjunction with the American Association of University Professors, called the situation “absurdist.”

“Everyone working in higher education right now depends on Zoom and we cannot be in a position of allowing a corporate, third-party vendor to make these kinds of decisions,” Roth said. “It’s simply unsustainable.”

Roth added that he asked the tech worker who was helping organize the event to check whether the link was active the night before it was set to go live because the event for the University of Hawaii had already been affected. It was fine at that point, but by early afternoon Friday, it had disappeared and there was no option to restore it.

“Universities tend to get into these lucrative contracts with Zoom, and more or less handed over this very fragile power to decide what is acceptable academic speech and what is not,” said Roth. “For those of us who work in the field of supporting and protecting Palestinian rights, it’s no surprise to us that Palestinian speech is the first to be cracked down on.”

The NYU event eventually went on with Google Meet, but the effort was intercepted by “politically-motivated trolls,” Roth said, and the organizers had to hold it privately and then publish the recording.

Cynthia Franklin, a professor at the University of Hawaii, also saw an event she organized deleted by Zoom, but was unable to find an alternative platform.

“I know that I have free speech rights that are being violated,” she said, “and a private entity is dictating to my public university what I can and cannot say.”

Katherine Franke, a professor at Columbia University who was a panelist at the NYU talk, has experienced events focused on Palestive being canceled in the past and was recently deported from Israel. She sees Zoom’s reaction as an extension of old problems.

“I think it presents a real challenge for universities to think about how to protect academic freedom in this context where we’re so dependent upon these internet-based ways of gathering and talking about comfortable and uncomfortable ideas,” she said.


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Boogaloo Bois Build Network Of Extremist Violence

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Julio Cortez / AP

A protester runs in front of the burning 3rd Precinct building of the Minneapolis Police Department, Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis.

The young man came to the protest over the police killing of George Floyd wearing a tactical vest on his chest and a skull mask over his face. In grainy video footage captured outside of Minneapolis’ Third Police Precinct on the night of May 28, the man can be seen pulling out an AK-47 style rifle and blasting 13 shots into the police building. The shooting happened shortly before the structure was set ablaze.

On Friday, federal officials issued a complaint against a 26-year-old Texan, Ivan Harrison Hunter, they say they have identified as the man in the video. Hunter faces one count of participating in a riot, with a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Hunter could not be reached for comment, and it was not immediately clear whether he had a lawyer.

But along with the charge, federal officials unsealed an affidavit accusing Hunter of being part of a loose nationwide network of violent extremists, known as Boogaloo Bois. The extremists connected and communicated through social media apps, including Facebook, to plot and glorify shocking violence, including killing a federal officer in Oakland and a scheme to supply Hamas with weapons to use against US soldiers.

For example, just a few hours after allegedly shooting up the precinct, Hunter messaged an associate in California, Steven Carrillo.

“Boog,” Hunter wrote.

“Did,” Carrillo responded.

“Go for police buildings,” Hunter advised.

“I did better lol,” Carrillo answered. Indeed, shortly before that exchange, according to authorities, Carrillo had shot and killed a Federal Protective Services officer, David Patrick Underwood, in Oakland.

Experts said the affidavit suggests evidence of a development that many have long suspected and feared: The Boogaloo Bois may not be just disconnected extremists who share a penchant for Hawaiian shirts and chaos. They may have built nationwide systems to coordinate acts of violence and terror.


Via Court Records / Via U.S. District Court Minnesota

“This now tells us the Boogaloo Bois are more than just a bunch of unconnected extremists,” said Brian Levin, director for The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “[It’s] a network for extremists who communicate in real time around terror plots and attacks.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Boogaloo Bois emerged from “antigovernment and white power online spaces in the early 2010s.” They have at times called for a second Civil War and are well known for wearing floral Hawaiian shirts with camouflage fatigues and subscribing to a range of extremist ideas.

The criminal complaint filed in court Friday reveals a network across the country whose members have been directly linked with deadly acts, hoping to incite even more violence across the nation. It also reveals the violent group of extremists used a variety of apps to communicate and network, yet continued to heavily rely on Facebook to not just connect with one another, but amplify their message over a network that expanded across the country, touching on Oakland, Minneapolis, Texas and across to North Carolina.

Facebook announced on June 30 that it was banning the anti-government network from its platform. BuzzFeed News had previously reported that the social network had profited by running ads for Boogaloo pages.

Despite the ban, Levin said much damage had already been done: the group had already greatly expanded using the network. Now, groups like the Boogaloo Bois could simply move their network out of Facebook and into other encrypted apps and networks.

“The problem is they give the vaccine after the virus has already ravaged the body,” Levin said of the decision by Facebook to ban Boogaloo groups on its platform. “The horses are out of the barn now with regard to Boogaloo.”


Via Court Records / Via US District Court Minnesota

According to court records, it was a May 26 Facebook post that prompted Hunter to drop everything, grab his AK-47-style rifle and make the 1,000-mile drive from Austin to Minneapolis, where protests over the killing of George Floyd by police had turned violent.

“I need a headcount,” the post read, asking Boogaloo Bois members across the country to respond.

“72 hours out,” Hunter replied.

The Facebook post Hunter responded to, authorities said, was posted by Michael Solomon, a 30-year-old who along with Benjamin Ryan Teeter are accused of trying to sell weapons to someone they believed was a member of Hamas. The two also considered becoming “mercenaries” for the terrorist group, prosecutors alleged, in order to raise money to fund the Boogaloo movement.

“Lock and load boys,” Teeter allegedly posted on Facebook as he headed to Minneapolis from North Carolina. “Boog flags are in the air, and the national network is going off.”

As each man made their separate drives to Minneapolis, federal officials allege that Teeter and Hunter communicated mostly through Facebook messages, and coordinated with Solomon to eventually meet at a Cub Foods grocery store near the police department’s third precinct.

“We have a team of 5,” Hunter messaged Solomon, according to the indictment.

Video obtained by the FBI shows someone wearing a skull mask over his head, glasses and a baseball cap firing into the police station that night while looters were inside the building. According to the indictment, Hunter was identified as the shooter by a “cooperating defendant.”

Hunter allegedly yelled out, “Justice for Floyd!” and then high-fived someone nearby.

Days later, Solomon would post a picture on his Facebook page of the group standing in the darkness outside the Cub Foods that day, including Hunter holding on to his rifle.

Teeter would post two pictures with Hunter, wearing the same skull mask, and then message him calling themselves, “battle buddies,” before Hunter headed back down to Texas.

“My mom would call the fbi if she knew what I do and the level I’m at w[ith] iot,” Hunter allegedly wrote on social media.

The group of extremists continued to communicate through Facebook and other apps, and even reached out to each other as law enforcement tried to catch up to them.


Via Court Records / Via US District Court Minnesota

On June 1, Carrillo was being sought by law enforcement after allegedly killing a federal officer in Oakland. Officials said Carrillo is believed to have taken advantage of the massive protests that erupted across the country “to kill cops” to try to spark a Civil War.

Carrillo was in hiding when Hunter reached out on Facebook again, asking for money.

Court records don’t explain why Hunter needed the money, but Carrillo responded that he was going to “be in the woods for a bit,” and managed to send Hunter $200.

“Doing good shit out there,” Carrillo allegedly wrote to Hunter.

“You too king!” he replied.


Via Court Records / Via US District Court Minnesota

Meanwhile on Facebook, Hunter publicly boasted of committing violent acts, claiming he had “burned police stations with black panthers in Minneapolis.”

“Want something to change? Start risking felonies for what is good,” he wrote.

According to the complaint, Hunter referred to himself as a “terrorist,” and claimed he and Carrillo were members of the “Happy Friends Group,” a team that would respond with violence if police tried to take their guns away.

Then on June 7, Hunter learned Carrillo had been taken into custody, accused of shooting and killing a Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Deputy in the process. Before officers grabbed him, Carrillo allegedly wrote “BOOG” on the hood of a white van with his own blood.

Hunter sent a Facebook message to Teeter that day, sharing a link to news of the arrest.

“Well shit,” Teeter replied.

It was months later in September that Hunter would learn that Teeter and Solomon were arrested over their alleged plot to sell weapons to Hamas.

The 26-year-old then told a confidential informant working with the FBI that it was “time to start shooting” and that he was willing to, “go down shooting.”


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Early warning: human detectors, drones and the race to control Australia’s extreme blazes | Australia news

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Perched in his fire tower high above the pine trees, Nick Dutton leans back and nods to the cascading hills and mountains behind him.

“I love being out here, just away from stuff,” he says. “I mean, you can’t really complain.”

Dutton, a fire tower operator, is sitting in his office, a tiny cabin propped high above the treetops by metal supports that sway with the wind.

His walls are littered with compass points and references, each a guide to the bush stretching in every direction along the eastern ACT-NSW border.

Every day, Dutton climbs into one of the ACT’s four towers, armed with binoculars, a radio, and his notebook, keeping a watchful eye for the faintest wisp of smoke rising in the distance.

The mind can easily deceive.

Stare at a spot too intently, you’ll see smoke, Dutton says.

“With a little bit of experience up here, you get used to what is and what isn’t smoke,” he says.

“Some people when they first start find it hard to discern dust from smoke. But smoke does have its own characteristics and you do learn to pick that out.”

It’s a lonely assignment.

The days are long and quiet, narrated by birdsong from the surrounding pine forest and punctuated by hourly weather reports back to headquarters. Human encounters are typically limited to the odd buzzing of radio chatter and errant bushwalkers.

“You really have to love being alone to do this,” he says. “I think that’s the main trait, if you hate being by yourself and not talking to anyone, you won’t survive.”

Dutton’s is an increasingly rare occupation.

Towers like the one in Kowen Forest are the oldest continuing method of bushfire detection and monitoring, used in Australia since the early 1900s.

Nick Dutton surveys the landscape at the Kowen Forest fire tower near Canberra.



Nick Dutton surveys the landscape at the Kowen Forest fire tower near Canberra. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Victoria still has more than 70 towers, Western Australia’s parks department operates 13 and NSW forestry authorities operate a network of almost 50.

But their use is in decline.

In the US, where lonesome observers are known unofficially as “freaks on the peaks”, there were almost 10,000 staffed fire towers in the 1950s.

Now, there’s just a few hundred.

The decline has been driven by rapid advances in technology, and the emergence of automated cameras, sensory technology, and more accurate satellite imagery.

At the same time, worsening bushfire conditions, driven by climate change, have demanded faster, more efficient detection and monitoring technology.

The shifts beg the question: is there still a place in modern firefighting for the observer in the fire tower?

Satellites, cameras and drones: striving for real-time detection

In the 1980s, a remarkable breakthrough in fire detection was made.

US researchers noticed tiny white specks on a satellite image of the Persian Gulf captured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s polar orbiting environmental satellites.

Those white specks were the thermal signatures of gas flares from oilfields.

They were the first active fires ever recorded from space.

The discovery promised new space-based potential to find and watch bushfires.

At first, the results were mixed. The systems were unable to differentiate a bushfire from oilfields.

But the technology was refined, the processing algorithms improved, and more specialised sensors and satellites were brought into the mix.

View over the pine plantation from the Kowen Forest fire tower near Canberra.



View over the pine plantation from the Kowen Forest fire tower near Canberra. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

A sensor known as the moderate resolution imaging spectroradiometer, placed aboard Nasa’s Terra and Aqua satellites, is now able to capture red “hotspots”.

The hotspots, seen in satellite imagery during last season’s horror bushfires, mark where marking the satellite sensor’s thermal bands detect high temperatures.

The accuracy, while not perfect, is now vastly improved and the technology continues to move at pace.

Earlier this year, a start-up named Fireball International, co-founded by University of Southern Queensland researcher Christopher Tylor said it had developed technology that fused satellite and tower sensors to detect a wildfire in California about 66 seconds after power lines fell and caused ignition.

Andrew Forrest’s Minderoo foundation is also proposing to use satellites, infrared sensors, and drones to identify and extinguish fires within an hour by 2025, through its $70m grant to the “Fire Shield” program.

The project is currently collaborating with fire towers like the one at Kowen Forest.

Companies like Ninox Robotics have proposed using a fleet of long-range drones equipped with advanced cameras accompanied by machine-learning algorithms to detect and monitor active fires.

Ninox believes the entire state of New South Wales can be monitored from 20 sites, using one active drone each.

Climate change, the worsening bushfire threat and ‘fast-attack’ strategies

The deployment of new technology would be most welcome in Australia.

The nation is now experiencing extreme bushfires at three times the rate it did a century ago and the climate crisis has brought new urgency to efforts to improve firefighting methods, including early detection.

Earlier this year, former commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW, Greg Mullins, and 32 other former emergency services leaders told the bushfire royal commission that Australia should adopt “fast-attack strategies”, based on detection by remote cameras, satellite images and spotter flights.

Early detection should be complemented by mid-sized and purpose-built water bombers with the aim of extinguishing fires within 24 hours, they argued.

Nick Dutton believes detection technology will one day render fire towers unnecessary.



Nick Dutton believes detection technology will one day render fire towers unnecessary. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“Every big fire was once a small fire,” Mullins told the Guardian at the time. “It’s very much like a military operation with eyes in the sky, with your ground troops that are backed up with some artillery.”

Even before the release of its final report, the royal commission has urged federal, state, and territory governments work together to fast-track advances to spatial technology to help “detect ignitions and monitor accurately all fire edge intensity and progression automatically across the nation in near real time”, the royal commission said.

The benefits of real-time detection are obvious. Shorten the time between ignition and a fire crews’ first attack, and the prospects of containing a fire are greatly improved.

Not only does early detection save lives, but it has the potential to save the Australian economy billions of dollars.

Earlier this year, researchers at the Australian National University estimated an effective early detection system could save the economy an estimated $2.2bn a year over 30 years.

“In our view, the large sums that result from our conservative estimates make investments and improvements in early detection financially very viable,” the authors concluded.

Mark Crosweller, the former head of Emergency Management Australia and the National Resilience Taskforce, said that detection, while important, should not be the main focus for Australia.

Crosweller said the common failure, seen in disaster after disaster, was one of situational awareness. Knowing where the fire is and where it’s going to go.

That failing was exposed with fatal consequences during the 2003 bushfires in Canberra, when a blaze burning in the mountains for more than a week ripped through the city without any proper warning to residents.

“They still have the same problem,” he said. “The industry is still fundamentally relying on human-centred intelligence, so human processing of data.”

The key advantage of more advanced sensory technology is its ability to feed into artificial intelligence and machine learning systems, which can then provide fast, accurate models to predict a fire’s behaviour.

“Sensory technology has the capacity to collect enormous amounts of data, but it needs to be machine analysed,” he said. “You still need a human to make a decision, but the machine can do the analysis work infinitely faster than a human can.”

“So I think it is the way of the future. And I think the future is now. I don’t think we have to wait any longer.”

The value of the human eye

Human observers, though, are far from obsolete.

In 2010, the CSIRO delivered a remarkable report on detection, comparing newer, automated camera systems with the skills of humans.

The study examined three systems: EYEfi, FireWatch, and Forest Watch, all of which used image analysis from sensors mounted on fixed towers.

The systems were tested for their ability to detect and locate fires, provide information to help with situational awareness, and integrate with emergency services agencies.

The humans won, hands down.

Experts say humans provide a critical second source of intelligence when a heat source is detected.



Experts say humans provide a critical second source of intelligence when a heat source is detected. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Six fires were lit intentionally for the study in forests near Tumut.

Tower observers saw all six. Firewatch reported one and Forest Watch reported zero. During the study, a further 250 private burns were conducted by neighbouring landholders.

“The camera systems reported many fires but comparison with tower observations in NSW and cross-referencing between camera reports in Victoria showed that a high proportion of private burns were not reported,” the study found.

The technology has come a long way since 2010.

But even still, Ailish Milner, a strategic planner with the ACT’s Rural Fire Service, believes human observers will have a key role to play in the near future.

Milner says humans provide a critical second source of intelligence when a heat source is detected using satellite or other technology.

“The towers are vital in being able to provide a second source of information,” she told the Guardian. “Being able to talk to the fire towers and say ‘we’ve got this heat source showing, can you see any smoke’ is that second source.”

“It’s all about intelligence. So the more intelligence you get, the more confirmation you have.”

Operators like Dutton don’t just spot fires, either.

Human observers bring their experience and extensive knowledge to contextualise and analyse what they’re observing.

Dutton recalls a recent example when a grassfire burnt through the Canberra suburb of Pialligo.

A colleague was in the tower and observed a strong wind change.

The observer knew the wind change would hit the fireground in Pialligo in a matter of minutes. Headquarters was alerted and crews on scene were informed.

Dutton believes detection technology will one day render fire towers unnecessary.

“But for now, I think you can start implementing the tech but still have the operators to refine the technology.”

“Because at the end of the day, the human eye is going to be much better.”

Crosweller agrees that human observers are still valuable, particularly while the industry still grapples with how to use machine learning and artificial intelligence.

“The better we get at machine learning and artificial intelligence, the better we’ll get at working out where humans fit in those systems,” he says.

“That’s why I wouldn’t exclude the use of people in that context. But it will change.”


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