• The world has rallied around Australia amid its bushfire crisis with countless offers of help and support.
  • But managing these well-meant donations has proved to be a tricky task.
  • A group from The Forum of Young Global Leaders has worked with programmers to develop a platform to help.
  • The system uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to match what a community needs with the right offer or donation.

None of us can have missed the images of yellow-clad volunteers hosing down blazing flames, people standing amid the blackened rubble of what were once people’s homes, and animals with bandaged paws and burned skin suffering the consequences of fires of an intensity previously unseen in Australian history.

Australia is just over a third of the way through its fire season for 2020 and already more than 2,000 homes (and rising) have been destroyed, more than 28 people have lost their lives, and an estimated 1 billion animals have perished in the flames – including some species at such magnitude, they are at serious risk of extinction.

Putting all of this into very stark perspective – with up to 300 fires burning simultaneously and fire-fronts extending along hundreds of kilometres, the recent fires have destroyed an area of land greater than the whole of Belgium – or about five times the size of the Amazonian fires that hit the headlines earlier in 2019.

Counting the costs

There is no doubt Australia has had its warmest and driest year on record. Temperatures have hit an average 1.52°C above the 1961-1990 average, and rainfall an average of 40% below average (using data back to 1900).

Forecasts indicate that with changing weather patterns serving to draw more moisture from Australia, macro-climatic conditions will worsen, and that means an increased risk of fire and extreme climatic events can be expected.

As the current fires continue to burn, Australia has started counting the costs, from rebuilding communities and infrastructure – there are reports of roads melting down mountainsides – to restarting essential services and reconstructing water supplies contaminated by ash and fire retardants.

And conversation, naturally, has turned to the cause. Anger and frustration dominate the headlines, with images of communities refusing to shake the hands of political leaders, and street protests led by people demanding action on climate change – the reason many believe is behind the worst fire season on record.

Looking for solutions

In the face of such hostile conditions with such wide-reaching impact, it’s easy to wonder what any of us can do. And it’s not surprising most of us turn to giving.

In Australia’s case, people across the country and around the world responded with incredible offers of support, trying to provide some semblance of normality in an otherwise surreal and displaced existence.

Communities have gathered in the midst of northern winters to knit mittens to protect the burned paws of koalas, or patiently create pouches for orphaned kangaroo joeys. There have been offers of accommodation, and community groups driving food vans to regional evacuation centres to feed volunteers and evacuees.

In the early stages of the fires, we saw huge numbers of offers from well-meaning citizens overwhelm centres struggling to manage in the face of an event of such magnitude. Communities were missing vital resources and equipment and diverting much-needed volunteer support to managing the generous but often irrelevant and unnecessary donations. As surplus donations piled up in the precious warehouse space, the Victorian Government issued a plea – requesting people refrain from making these in-kind donations and asking them to donate cash instead.

While this managed the immediate issue of diversion of human resources, it left the global community struggling to find options to help.

Quickly the lines of cars snaking around city blocks to donate at charitable organizations like Foodbank were replaced by people setting up online Facebook pages, Instagram accounts and Google spreadsheets. While enormously popular with donees – some registering thousands of offers to help – these can be hard to use, difficult to manage, and are increasingly reported to be ripe for fraud. As locals struggled to connect to the internet and navigate an increasingly crowded web space, their needs went unmet.

Matching offers with needs

Change isn’t made by one person alone. Change is made by communities of people united by purpose, passion and perseverance.

With the support of a group of programmers supplied by our colleagues and friends at the Young Presidents’ Organisation, a group of us as members of The Forum of Young Global Leaders rapidly “hacked” a platform-based solution that utilises AI and machine-based learning to understand and devise an efficient system that matches needs with offers, and that uses both existing and new data, weighs and validates offers of help, and creates an aggregated support system driven by and for communities in need.

The platform is designed to remedy the current inefficiencies and bottlenecks and to create a transparent, supported matching system that allows people, companies and organizations to aggregate and respond to requests for physical goods and services.

It will draw information from existing platforms, supplement with new data, and provide opportunities for companies and individuals to understand how they can make a contribution of goods, services and/or products that will match what is needed and where, and have a targeted and meaningful impact on communities and people affected by the fires.

A new approach

Our goal? To create an opportunity for all of us, everywhere, to provide support to communities and individuals affected by the fires through a platform that is safe and secure, allows us to appropriately manage our offers with the requests for help, and to provide a system to support the supply of aggregated services.

We’re in the early stages of the development of the platform with the support of members of our Forum’s business community, and an eye to providing it to the Australian Government’s new Bushfire Relief Agency.

The increasing nature, frequency and severity of global challenges requires new, innovative, intergenerational leadership. Leadership that thinks not of the scale of the problem, nor the barriers to change, but of the opportunity to invent, to innovate, to unify and to create.

Only then will we find our way to the future.

The Forum of Young Global Leaders is a community of over 1,200 public officials, business innovators, artists, educators, technology developers, journalists and activists with the vision, courage and influence to drive positive change. Representing the present and future generation of leadership around the world and affected by the dire impacts of the bushfires in their country, the Forum of Young Global Leaders’ Australian members have committed their own networks, ideas, and determination to combatting the bushfire crisis.