Bushfire.io founder Tristan Morris nominated for Australia Day award

Nominee for the Australian of the Year Award 2021 Tristan Morris built the Bushfire.io app which maps where fire hotspots are. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Nominee for the Australian of the Year Award 2021 Tristan Morris built the Bushfire.io app which maps where fire hotspots are. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Tristan Morris hasn't had a lot of time off this summer. Although the bushfire season has been subdued on the east coast, fires raging in Western Australia have kept him busy, ensuring the bushfire app he created in the hope of saving lives is keeping up.

Mr Morris founded Bushfire.io last year, in the hopes the ability to pool together data to map and predict fire hotspots could help frontline workers, and save lives.

The idea came to him last summer while on the South Coast at Ulladulla. He'd planned to head further south but found out a fire on the highway had blocked the road.

The Fires Near Me app didn't give any advice to evacuate or which way the fire might head.

Three days later, he'd built a platform which combined data from the NSW and Victorian fire apps with traffic and weather data.

Bushfire.io ran off a $30 Raspberry Pi - a credit card-sized computer designed to teach basic computer science in schools and developing countries. Within a month, the platform had 120,000 unique users.

It was also used in the National Crisis Coordination Centre.

The creation has landed Mr Morris among the 5500 Australians nominated for an Australian of the Year Award. A "humbling" but "weird" experience, Mr Morris said.

Mr Morris has degrees in computer science, software engineering and psychology, and has worked for 18 years in high-performance computing, data science and artificial intelligence.

He hoped the platform could save lives, but from the start was conscious about what could happen if something went wrong. "We're effectively using government information and putting it out there in a different form," he said.

If something went wrong with the app, the worst could have happened and it could cost lives not save them, Mr Morris said.

"So if people don't interpret the information correctly or equipment failed and the site is not available or ... warnings that should have gone out at 9 o'clock in the morning go out at 3 o'clock in the afternoon."

From the outset, however, it was found to be incredibly useful, especially for those on the fireground. NSW Rural Fire Service volunteer Mark Carroll first saw the app while on the firefront. A long-term colleague of Mr Morris', he came to him with much-needed feedback - how to make this work best for the first responders who needed it.

One of the first aspects of the website was a feedback form, which Mr Morris saw as a "safety switch" to ensure the platform was working how users needed it to.

"If people are using this and starting to use it for critical things or they're noticing issues, hopefully that's a way for someone to say 'can you please stop doing this' or 'this is broken'," he said. "That feedback ended up with hundreds of people saying this is amazing, thank you so much for putting it together."

Twelve months on, Mr Morris is deciding what he wants the future of his app to be. He hopes to expand its capability beyond bushfires, to provide accurate data for storms, floods and cyclones.

"My car was written off at the start of the year in the hailstorm, I want to know if there's a storm coming for my car ... and I kind of assume there's other people that will want that kind of information as well," he said.

"Feels like a lot can be gained from it but at the same time it's a pretty new area that has been very much left to the government.

"Over the past 12 months we've been collecting the data and almost getting ready for it."

International expansion is also on the cards, with Mr Morris looking at the possibility of providing services in the United States, Canada and possibly beyond.

This story Bushfire app to expand into natural disasters, gains 'humbling' award nomination first appeared on The Canberra Times.