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What’s the best tablet for video calling grandma? | Tablet computers

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I want to get my grandma a tablet for easy video calling. She is elderly and needs to self-isolate, and she is already quite isolated after the recent death of her husband. I am not sure which tablet or which program to use. She isn’t very computer literate.

This new Facebook thing looks good but I am sceptical of the brand. Chris

Video calling used to be a futuristic topic. Today, it is readily available on most devices except, oddly enough, smart TVs. If anything, there’s a plethora of services, and I haven’t tried most of them. The options include Zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Skype and many more. Zoom is a business service but it works well and is clearly flavour of the month, with downloads up by 1,270%. Fake backgrounds are one of its winning features.

In this case, I recommend going with whatever you know best. You’re probably going to have to do remote telephone support and the more familiar you are with a system, the easier that will be. If you can get the same equipment at both ends, even better. If you have to start from scratch, try it out with someone else and find the tricky bits before involving grandma.

I can understand the appeal of the Facebook Portal because it is designed for the job. The smart cameras and tracking are far better than you get in most home speaker-type devices. You can make video calls via WhatsApp as well as Facebook Messenger, and it has Amazon’s Alexa built in. The drawbacks are that it involves using Facebook, it is expensive, and you are bound to have privacy concerns. (I assume grandma isn’t using Facebook now as you’d probably have tried Facebook Messenger as the most obvious option.)

The version that could swing it for some people is Portal TV from Facebook (£149), which doesn’t have a screen. It plugs into your TV set and works with its own small remote as well as its “Hey Portal” voice control.

Google’s Nest Hub Max (£219) is similar to the standalone Portal. It has a good 6.5 megapixel camera, a 10in screen and a voice-controlled Google Assistant, but it also comes with privacy concerns. They all do.

Amazon’s Echo Show

amazon echo show
Amazon’s Echo Show comes in a variety of sizes, including with a 5in screen (front right) and with a 10in screen (back centre). Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Fortunately, there is an alternative that I can recommend and use myself: Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo Show. At least with Amazon I’m a paying customer, whereas Google and Facebook make most of their money from surveillance-based advertising. I think it’s the lesser of three evils, but the final choice is up to you.

There are three Echo Show options with 5in (£79.99), 8in (£99.99) and 10in (£198.99) screens. Bigger screens are better, but the 8in version is the best value for money and, in my experience, the 5in model works well enough.

You set up an Alexa Show from a smartphone app and give it access to your contacts list. After that you will be able to make calls by saying “Alexa, call grandma”. Alexa can also call most numbers that are not in your contacts list if you spell them out (“Alexa, call 0 2 0 8…).

Alexa performs many other useful functions, too. These include weather reports, playing radio stations or individual songs (if available), doing conversions (“Alexa, what’s 37 degrees in Fahrenheit?”), answering general knowledge questions (though not nearly as well as Google Assistant), telling Dad jokes, and playing simple games. You can easily provide grandma with a list of things to say, and Amazon will email you suggestions on a regular basis.

Alexa can read books and stories, including books from an Amazon Audible account. She can also control other home devices, such as lights, if you have any that are compatible. If you have an Amazon Prime account, an Alexa Show can play Amazon Prime videos.

Finally, Alexa devices – like Portals and Nest Hubs – are always plugged into the mains, so grandma never has to think about recharging them.

Fire HD

amazon fire hd 10
The new Fire HD 10, released late 2019, is excellent for £149.99 but there are significantly cheaper versions available if price is an issue. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

If you decide to buy a tablet instead, an Amazon Fire HD is a good choice for your purposes, and the best value for money. There are two HD models with 8in (£79.99) and 10in (£149.99) screens, and a non-HD model with a 7in screen (£49.99). The 8in version is “easily the best tablet you can buy for £80”, but I think it’s worth paying more for the 10in model. This has a faster processor, a sharper 1920 x 1200-pixel screen, twice as much storage, better battery life (up to 12 hours) and a USB-C port. I’d also pay the extra £10 to remove the Amazon promotions.

Fire HD tablets have Alexa, so grandma would be able to use the same video calling system as with an Alexa Show. The drawbacks are that it’s not as convenient as an always-on Alexa, will need charging often, and has comparatively poor speakers.

A 5in Alexa Show works well as a bedside clock-radio alarm, and the larger versions work well as kitchen radios. With a Fire HD, you’d need to add an accessory stand and an external speaker. (Amazon’s custom case will prop it up for £39.99, but I’d rather have the old Show Mode Charging Dock, which converted a Fire HD 10 into an Echo Show. See below…)

The Fire HD also has the advantage of providing tablet apps, so grandma could do her emails, browse Facebook, play games and other things. There are plenty of casual games suitable for seniors, and it’s not too late for her to become addicted to Candy Crush or Bejeweled. You could also play Words With Friends with her.

Technically, Amazon’s Fire OS is a fork of Android, but it has more than enough apps and games. The apps include Zoom Cloud Meetings, Facebook Messenger and Skype.

FaceTime

apple ipads
Apple’s iPads come in a variety of sizes and prices, all of which are capable of FaceTime video calls to other iPads, Macs and iPhones. Photograph: Apple

Apple’s FaceTime is a great way to make video calls. Its major drawback is that it only runs on Apple kit. If you had an iPhone or an iPad, then I expect you’d already have decided to buy grandma an iPad. If I’m wrong and you are an Apple user, you can buy an iPad with a 10.2in screen for £349.

Unfortunately, if you have to buy new iPads for both ends, then approximately £700 is not a cheap solution compared with roughly £200 for two Echo Shows, or one Echo Show and your current smartphone.

Of course, iPads can do thousands of things besides making video calls, and grandma would find many of them useful or entertaining. If grandma didn’t want to use FaceTime for some reason, iPads support many other video calling systems, including Zoom Cloud Meetings. They also have more and better apps than Android and Amazon tablets.

Android tablets

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab A10 has a 10.1in screen for under £200.
Samsung’s Galaxy Tab A10 has a 10.1in screen for under £200. Photograph: Samsung

There are a zillion Android tablets, and you can save a lot of money by buying “off brand” products. Nevertheless, I’d go for a mainstream Samsung Galaxy Tab, one of the Huawei MediaPad range, or a Lenovo SmartTab. From what I’ve seen – which isn’t all of them – they are well made and they have good quality screens at reasonable prices.

A geek could spend a long time pondering the selfie camera resolution, processor speed, storage and so on. I don’t expect any of those will matter much for grandma’s purposes. Just decide how much you want to spend and pick the best you can get.

From the Samsung range, I’d look at the 10.1in Galaxy Tab A10 with Android 9 (Pie) for around £199 or less.

From the Huawei range, I’d go for a MediaPad M5 lite rather than a T5, because these have USB-C ports instead of microUSB. I couldn’t find a 10in M5 with Android 9 instead of 8 (Oreo), though you could live with that or get an 8in model instead.

Lenovo offers a 10.1in SmartTab tablet that “transforms to an Alexa-enabled Smart Screen when docked”. The dock provides the stand and extra speakers for an all-in price of £149 (M10) or £220 (P10). That ticks both boxes at an affordable price, but I’d still go for an Echo Show.

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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