The tradition of using fire to clear land for agriculture has been used since humankind first gave up hunting and gathering to adopt a more settled existence around 12,000 years ago. It is not only the cheapest and fastest way to dispose of waste and to clear the land, it is also a traditional way of socializing in small groups that goes back to the ancient tradition of humans gathering around the fire. Back then, however, the practice was practical as human settlements were small and scattered, and the landscape generally greener than it is now.
Today this practice has serious implications for our environment and our health. Each year, the total number of fires differs due to weather, people actually reporting the fire and so, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine reports between 36,000-56,000 fires in open ecosystems burning across the country. These fires, even if started with good intentions, pollute the air, destroy entire ecosystems and cause untold economic hardship. In 2019, these fires reportedly caused 84 deaths in addition to economic losses of about UAH 3.4 billion (US$ 120.6 million).
So far this year the situation has not improved. Entire villages have been razed to the ground, and thousands of hectares of forest lost to forest fires. Fires also have occurred in the Chornobyl exclusion zone, raising concerns of radioactive particles escaping into the atmosphere. Furthermore, and of particular concern, wildfire smoke irritates the lungs, causes inflammation, affects the immune system, and makes people more prone to lung infections, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that cause COVID-19 [more info on that here].
The search for solutions
To confront this crisis, the United Nations Development Programme, through its Kyiv-based Accelerator Lab, is exploring innovative and modern solutions to this perennial problem, while engaging with local communities for help. It has conducted several mapping exercises around the country to determine the extent and nature of the challenge. This work includes the technological and legal aspects, but also puts a lot of emphasize on the need for human behaviour change. The following chart depicts the problems space as we defined it through our research.
Figure 2: Problem Space
A few examples of the successful use of collective intelligence include:
Farm hack - Community of farmers building and modifying tools together
iNaturalist – computer vision models empower citizen scientists to collect data on species, their distributions, and the risks posed to their survival
London Air Quality Monitoring - Primary school pupils in London carry backpacks with air quality sensors on their journey to and from school to help monitor the levels of toxic air
More examples available on this Trello board prepared by NESTA.
To design our project, we relied to a great extent on the Collective intelligence design playbook - a guide prepared in a participatory way by CI practitioners. This manual is filled with templates, instructions, playcards, frameworks and canvases. Our process began with a deep dive into the collective intelligence concept started at a workshop in Istanbul (February 2020) where we refined our knowledge, and sketched the framework of our future project. Most importantly, we met other teams from countries that were addressing similar challenges. We learned that, for example, colleagues in Lao PDR our colleagues are also working on open burning of waste. We consulted and advised each other, giving additional boost to our work. The UNDP Country Office in Lao PDR recently published a two-blog series on their experiences with using collective intelligence to understand the problem of burning : 1) The Journey: Collective Intelligence (CI) to understand open burning; and 2) Why do we need Collective Intelligence (CI) for solid waste management?
Taking a bird’s eye view with satellite imagery
To help assess the extent of the burning, and to communicate the urgency to local communities, we drew upon available satellite sensor data. The satellites circle the earth approximately every 3-4 hours to register heat anomalies. Some people do not consider fires as emergency and sometimes it is not reported to the state emergency service, hence evading official statistics. Satellites also register the exact location and times of the fires unlike reported sources of data.
Best of all, the satellite data is freely available. Of course, satellites have limitations – a thick cloud will not allow capturing the fires, some small fires will also not be registered. But they perfectly serve our purpose by providing insights on the patterns of burning in terms of time and place.
We explained to all participants in the collective intelligence exercise how to subscribe to live fire alerts in their community and receive them directly to their smartphones (service available from NASA). We taught them how to use the GIS analysis solution that was developed by the Center for Innovations Development for this purpose, visualized the patterns of fires for previous five years.
We then asked participating communities to draw some conclusions using provided GIS data analysis tool relevant for a specific community. For the sake of scientific integrity, this data cannot be extrapolated for whole country. Nevertheless, here are some of such conclusions that explain the value from such analytics:
The community of Zasulska determined that more than 50 percent of fires occur in corn fields. GIS analysis also allowed them to understand the dynamic of the problem: number of fires in the community was twice that of the previous year.
The community of Torchynska discovered that in 2019 more fires were observed on agricultural fields, while in 2020 (for 5 months) more than 80 percent fires were on grass-fields. They were also able to evaluate the vast areas that were on fire – for a small community of 10,000 residents, there were fires on fields totaling 2600 hectares (note: this does not mean that all 2600 hectares burned down, this rather informs about the possible risks).
To further bolster our efforts and to give the community participants a bird’s eye view on the problem, we reached out to the Emergency Management Service of Copernicus (European Space Agency) and received the geo-spatial analysis of wildfires hazards in the central Ukraine. Their analysis provided a clear picture of which type of land cover are under the highest risk of fire. Available calculations made by the Copernicus show that more than 66 percent of analyzed area has a very high fire hazard score. Stunningly, 70 percent of the population and almost 90 percent of the tangible assets (e.g. settlements) are exposed to high and very high fire hazards. Analysis confirms the anthropogenic nature of wildfires – which start as a “controlled” cleaning of an agricultural field or a hayfield and later can escalate into uncontrolled blaze.
Figure 3: Distribution of fire hazard level per land cover, EMSN-075Forest fires preparedness, Ukraine, ESA