The Surveying and Spatial Community Comes together in aid of Bushfire Recovery

March 30, 2020

Since September 2019, bushfires have burnt over 18.6 million hectares of land and killed 34 people.  An estimated one billion animals have been killed and it is feared that some endangered species may be driven to extinction. Major bushfires have heavily impacted regions of New South Wales, eastern and north-eastern Victoria, Canberra and Kangaroo Island in South Australia, and large areas of forest have been burnt.

Reinforcements from all over Australia responded to assist firefighters and relieve exhausted local crews. The Australian Defence Force was mobilised to provide air support to the firefighting effort and to provide manpower and logistical support. Firefighters and equipment from New Zealand, Singapore, Canada, Fiji and the United States, among others, helped fight the fires, especially in New South Wales. 

Geospatial teams were also in action - mapping fires and modelling fire trajectory scenarios for the firefighters. Many of the teams were joined by local volunteer mapping groups trained in disaster response GIS activities.  Volunteer surveyors have also been engaged in supporting government on the ground to identify where survey marks need replacing and boundaries re-establishing.

The Map-a-thon

As the fires reach their peak late December 2019, SSSI was inundated will calls from our surveying and spatial sciences community, asking what they could do to help their fellow Australians. Calls came from individuals and companies offering support.

SSSI consulted with Commonwealth and State Government agencies, the newly formed National Bushfire Recovery Agency (NBRA), industry peak bodies and NGOs, seeking advice on how our profession could contribute. This consultation led to the SSSI National Bushfire Recovery Map-a-thon held on Sunday, 9th February 2020, and the location of burnt infrastructure being the main priority.

The map-a-thon was held at six locations across Australia, with venues provided by GHD and Aurecon, and refreshments generously supported by Veris, Leica, Hexagon Geospatial, Jacobs and Hydro Tasmania.

There were over 600 registered participants - 300 joined remotely from home and 44 teams took part from other locations, in addition to the organised venues. There were 100 overseas participants from 26 countries - Albania, Belgium, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Fiji Islands, Germany, Ghana, Guam, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Jamaica, Kenya, Nepal, New Zealand, Nigeria, Philippines, Qatar, Spain, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, USA, and Zimbabwe.

FIG Young Professionals and URISA GIS Corps were very active supporters, and volunteer GIS groups continued to contribute to the map-a-thon after its formal close on 11th February and 15th February.

A Team Effort

On the day many participants shared experiences and raised questions using the SSSI Bushfire Recovery Discord chat server administered by SSSI volunteers. At one point, we had over 200 participants logged in to the chat channel. Discord proved to be an ideal way for the Map-a-thon community to network with each other and not feel isolated when working from home locations.  In addition, organisers could make announcements to assist mappers, and sponsors, such as Nearmap, were able to participate and solve any technical issues immediately. Even after the Map-a-thon, participants are still engaging on the chat channel, and it was exciting to see our international participants log on during the day to get feedback before they started mapping.

One of the highlights of the map-a-thon was the #SSSIBushfireRecovery Spotify playlist.  Many added to the playlist, culminating in a variety of genres and a welcome selection of international music.

Observation Imagery

Map-a-thoners were fortunate to have had access to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of aerial imagery on the day, and SSSI is grateful to supporters Nearmap, Planet and Airbus for pledging support and working overtime to ensure the imagery was available on the day. This post-fire imagery was crucial to the success of the map-a-thon as it was used to detect damaged and destroyed infrastructure.  Satellite imagery from Planet and Airbus provided a ‘first look’ at the fire impacted areas, and Nearmap aerial photography enabled a closer inspection of damaged areas.  Also, vital was the government mapping data from VicMap, NSW Spatial Services and the NSW Royal Fire Service, which was used to aid interpretation. 

Map-a-thon Platform

The OpenStreetMap (OSM) Platform and Hot Tasker Manager were used to coordinate the mapping effort by the hundreds of map-a-thoners.   OSM is a free, editable map of the whole world that is being built and maintained by volunteers and released with an open-content license.  The OSM community provided support before and during the map-a-thon and prepared a report for SSSI feedback that will help to streamline future events. 

NGIS Australia provided the technical support to create the SSSI Project Areas for the map-a-thon, which covered all the bushfire devasted areas. NGIS also worked with imagery and data providers to ensure all systems worked smoothly on the day.  This was a significant piece of work and SSSI is grateful to NGIS for their leadership and generosity.

SSSI Young Professionals (YP’s) were at the heart of the map-a-thon - from the lead up to the event, through-out the event and post event.  YPs undertook OSM onboarding training, developed specific training materials, and coordinated map-a-thon training on the day.

The side activities were supported by ESRI Australia and Safe Software, which provided ArcGIS Software licensing and support, and FME Software licences, respectively.

Data Collected

The map-a-thon is one of the largest single event map-a-thons held in the Australasian region; with a total of 2,793,879 hectares were mapped, with 15,731 edits, 13,891 building edits, 1,091 damaged features mapped and 945 damaged buildings mapped to date (Table 1). 

This significant achievement has demonstrated that the combined talents of surveying and spatial community, SSSI volunteers and the OpenStreetMap Community can make huge inroads in improving the OpenStreetMap as an Australian community resource. These maps are essential for understanding where things, and navigating from A to B.

Data validation was conducted during the map-a-thon by the OSM community. The project areas are partly completed and validated, and will be prioritised and progressively worked on at future map-a-thon events.

At the time of writing, NGIS Australia have extracted a copy of the data, and it is currently with the National Bushfire Recovery Agency for comparative analysis and verification.

Table 1: OpenStreetMap map-a-thon statistics as at 20 February.

Project Area


Hectares _Available

Hectares _Mapped

Percentage _Mapped

Percentage _Validated

Blue Mountain






























Snowy River






Kangaroo Island













Use Cases

When the map-a-thon was advertised, several NGO’s, government departments and community groups reached out asking for specific mapping support to enable them to better respond to emerging needs within the community.  Requests ranged from data analysis, address validation and specific data collection themes.

There was also significant interest in disaster preparedness tasks to better understand future high-risk areas and where ground volunteers may potentially be needed in the future.  Community organisations have also sought data to gain a better understanding of social and economic impacts in the wake of damage to crops and orchards, and the loss of wildlife and farm animals etc.

During the map-a-thon a few groups worked specially on special mapping requests.  Parks Victoria joined the map-a-thon to collect asset information within National Parks for damage assessment, and Red Cross mapping volunteers work with a team of map-a-thoners to validate addresses.

As a consequence of these many requests coming in, SSSI has provided a form that the community can use to formalise their needs.  This form is available here.  These requests will be incorporated into ongoing SSSI volunteer activities and future map-a-thons. 


The map-a-thon and follow-on activities have highlighted that surveying and spatial science has an important contributing role to the safety and well-being of Australians by providing national mapping support for disaster preparedness and recovery efforts on a volunteer basis.

The map-a-thon was a significant logistical exercise, requiring the coordinated effort of many volunteers, including a large contingent of SSSI Young Professionals, nationally.  

These efforts demonstrate that the surveying and spatial professionals can come together quickly as a formidable group for nationally coordinated volunteer mapping services.  SSSI will continue to work with users to collect priority information, develop use cases and share success stories. 

On the Horizon

A second map-a-thon is on the horizon and with the continued support from imagery providers it is set to be another success.  SSSI will be working closely with the many stakeholders for their feedback, and with the OSM community to resolve outstanding technical issues to streamline and improve future map-a-thon capabilities. 

A second initiative, SSSI Bushfire Recovery StoryMap, is currently in development with support from NGIS Australia and ESRI Australia. You will hear more about this soon.

Want to know more about the Map-a-thon? Join us for our free Webinar!

Join us for the SSSI Webinar: ‘The Outcome: SSSI National Bushfire Recovery Map-a-thon’

SSSI is pleased to be hosting a Webinar ‘The Outcomes: SSSI National Bushfire Recovery Map-a-thon’ which will be held on Thursday, 16th April, 2020 from 2pm – 3pm AEST.


Dr Lesley Arnold, SSSI Board Director will give an overview of the Map-a-thon initiative and discuss overall logistics of planning; industry, government and NGO engagement; the challenges and overall execution of the event.

Nathan Eaton, Executive Director, NGIS Australia will give an overview of the technical set-up of this mammoth Map-a-thon and highlight some of the challenges and triumphs experienced.

This is a free event open to those who participated in the Map-a-thon or are involved in the surveying and spatial community. To register click here  

For further information contact:
Johanna Gastevich
WA Regional Operations Manager

Introductory video is available here)

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