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By Alison Donnellan 14 December 2020 3 min read

Over 2,400 homes destroyed, roughly $1 billion in infrastructure damage, 5.4 million hectares burned and the loss of 26 lives - the Black Summer bushfires in NSW were one of the worst disasters the state had ever experienced.

The NSW Independent Bushfire Enquiry identified the loss of connectivity as a reoccurring issue throughout the season, with the destruction of critical communications infrastructure across the state leaving at-risk communities and emergency responders on occasion cut-off from the outside world.

The enquiry found that the reliable sharing of critical infrastructure, telecommunications and spatial information will be a key component to preventing a similarly devastating summer, addressing the need for a tool that could integrate and visualise a volume of essential data.

Launched in February 2020 by NSW Department Customer Service Spatial Services, The NSW Spatial Digital Twin has been selected to securely house, organise, and visualise the data needed to develop effective management strategies for disaster planning, preparedness, response and recovery.

Built on CSIRO’s Data61’s TerriaJS platform and incorporating secure open-source data catalogue MAGDA, the Digital Twin Visualisation Service leverages Data61’s deep strength in web-mapping and visualising data in 3D + time (the ability to look forward and back in time) to build a real-world ‘digital twin’ prototype.

“The Digital Twin enables emergency services and other critical organisations to download data and plug it into their system so they can make laser-like informed decisions,” explains Minister for Customer Service NSW Victor Dominello in a NSW Spatial Services showcase video.

“The data within the Digital Twin is so powerful because, quite frankly if you don’t have data then you are flying blind, and that’s where Digital Twin is unparalleled.”

A communications and utilities tower near dense Australian bushland

The integration of a 3D spatial dataset mapping the locations of telecommunication towers and assets across NSW into the Digital Twin will enable emergency service organisations to better understand and protect these vital locations before and during an event.

“There is nothing more powerful than the spatial layers to paint the picture about what’s at risk, so having access to that Digital Twin allows us to invest in preventative and mitigation strategies,” argues Shane Fitzsimmons, Head of Resilience NSW and previously the Commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service.

“In an unfolding emergency, like a bushfire, we can know in advance what’s likely to happen in that fire in the next few days, making sure we can shore up protection as much as we can.”

The new dataset will also inform emergency responders as to what telecommunications services are and aren’t accessible for operational use, what services are available to the community, and ensure residents have the greatest possible prospect of retaining communications and connectivity during a crisis.

“Having a Digital Twin for communications infrastructure means we can factor into our risk planning, factor into our annual treatments in the months and years before a fire impact,” explains Mr Fitzsimmons.

“In the event that something is impacted, we can put in contingencies for servicing resupply and repair to get it back up and running as quickly as we can.”

“What we’ve been finding for years now is the inability to have a collective data set from telecommunications and other utilities tied into our emergency services. This lack of understanding and detail means you are not appreciative of how vulnerable or how susceptible some sites might be.”

According to Minister Dominello, the real-time analysis and information the NSW Spatial Digital Twin will provide could be the difference between life and death.

Mats Henrikson, Web Geospatial Systems Group Leader at CSIRO’s Data61 said this application of the Digital Twin highlights its role as an ecosystem enabling data infrastructure, helping governments and industry make better decisions on environmental management, natural resource management, as well as emergency management, and informing infrastructure planning and delivery.

“The Digital Twin Visualisation Service leverages Data61’s deep strength in web-mapping and visualising data in 4D (3D + time, which is the ability to look forward and back in time) to build a real-world ‘digital twin’ that can help protect communities and assets in times of need,” Mr Henrikson concludes.

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