Meet Watch Duty: the app tracking wildfires in real time

Like many people, John Mills relocated during the pandemic, moving full time to his ranch in Sonoma county after years as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.  Mills’ move didn’t just take him away from the hustle and bustle of California’s tech capital, however: It took him to the heart of fire country. 

When the Walbridge fire ripped through northwest Sonoma County, Mills found his home threatened, and he spent hours each day checking for updates on Facebook and Twitter, which were exploding with concerned homeowners just like himself. CalFire, the state’s major firefighting administration, only provides updates about once a day, leaving municipalities–and individuals–to fend for themselves in between. Concerned citizens keep their ears glued to radio scanners and blast them out to their audiences, sometimes of thousands. But Twitter and Facebook are social networks, and were never designed for the type of information distribution that massive wildfires require. As a long time technologist and software engineer, Mills wanted to help, and he got to work. “All I wanted to do was build these guys a bigger microphone. I am not trying to change anything about how they operate, just give them a platform.” 

Sonoma Valley firefighters plan their effort to combat a growing wildfire Credit: Christopher Chung

With the help of a volunteer team of “citizen information officers” and other software engineers, Mills built Watch Duty, a free app for real-time wildfire information that currently provides updates for Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties. Within days of launching in August, Watch Duty had 22,000 active users. Most of the citizen information officers who work with Watch Duty had large followings on social media, and brought their audiences to the app.  “I’ll be out somewhere and hear our push notifications go off in people’s pockets. It’s incredible,” said Mills. 

The trick to Watch Duty is its simplicity–the app sends push notifications to users with the latest information on fires uploaded by their vetted citizen information officers, but beyond that, the user interface is basic. “Our product is doing well, because it’s super simple. It doesn’t cost much to operate,” said Mills. 

Display of Watch Duty’s easy-to-use interface. Credit: johnclarkemills.com

At the heart of Watch Duty are the organization’s citizen information officers, or CIOs, most of whom are local to the regions that they provide updates for. They post on the app as they find information through their own research on public forums, aerial photography and radio scanners. As long time experts, Watch Duty’s CIOs are well respected experts with roots in the community. “These guys are the trusted voice of these communities, and they tell everyone, ‘We’re building this app. You should get on it,’ so it just exploded,” said Mills. 

Watch Duty is designed to be accessible even to people who aren’t tech savvy themselves, like the elderly or those without reliable internet access. “We’ve gotten thousands of letters, telling us people feel safer, that they don’t have to be on social media all the time searching for information. It’s alleviated some anxiety for people,” said Mills. 

Federal community relations worker speaks with resident in California following a wildfire Credit: WikiCommons

Watch Duty isn’t just used by citizens, either–firefighters themselves rely on the app to get the latest information from other agencies or regions. Mills makes it a habit to attend town hall meetings and other public forums and work alongside authorities, and has gotten positive feedback from the firefighting community. “Every firefighter I met mentions it. They all use it,” he said.

Unlike social media, where information can’t be vetted, Mills relies on his team of experts to check information and make sure that the notifications sent to the app’s users aren’t just current, but accurate too. “Just because we hear something on the radio once, we don’t post it. We wait to hear it a few times at least, because we are trying to be a reliable source of truth.”

Running Watch Duty isn’t without its challenges, however. Without any paid employees, the organization has limitations. Compared to the tech companies Mills has created or worked for in the past, Watch Duty is scrappy, bootstrapped–and short on funds. “We need more people, more time. But our volunteers have jobs, they have homes and mortgages and kids,” said Mills. Because most of the software engineers who work on Watch Duty have day jobs and pull a second shift at night to work on design and programming updates, Mills works evenings as well. 

Despite the challenges, Mills plans to expand to other areas soon, and would ideally like to reach the entire state by next fire season. The app will soon launch a feature where citizens can post photos to the app,  which will be vetted by CIOS before posting to the platform (users will be required to take photos through the app for vetting purposes).  For Mills, the experience has been eye opening and inspiring. “I’ve never built anything like this before. I usually build things like enterprise software, seemingly unsexy things. It’s been truly explosive in the best way. I am so glad it is helping.” 

Watch Duty can be downloaded for free on the App Store or on Google Play. 

Check out these related articles and resources:

Wildfire blackouts got you down? Start a battery collective like we did in Oakland
The Response podcast: The impact of northern California fires on the undocumented community 
Resources for community-led disaster response and resilience initiative

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