Disaster, emergency, and climate at FWD50 2019

The number of natural disasters humans face has grown in recent years:

From Our World In Data (https://ourworldindata.org/natural-disasters)

The good news is that the lives lost to such tragedies has dropped — thanks to better preparedness, improved communications, and new technologies to find and help survivors.

Source: Our World In Data (https://ourworldindata.org/uploads/2018/04/Global-annual-death-rate-from-natural-disasters-01.png)

Many of the systems we take for granted can be co-opted into emergency services: For example, in many countries, beer and soft drink makers can quickly reconfigure their factories to produce canned water and push it down their supply chains—the systems we’ve created as a society to move goods and services at scale can be quickly transformed to help us.

From ABC News (https://abcnews.go.com/US/anheuser-busch-sending-300000-cans-drinking-water-areas/story?id=58541217)

In Canada, Canadian brewer Labatt recently did this for firefighters and victims of forest fires. Elsewhere, mobile networks push out emergency warnings; social media platforms let us report in during disasters, and Big Data pinpoints the most vulnerable when first responders are overtaxed.

But some of the systems that help us survive can make us fragile in new ways. Two fundamental challenges are changing the disaster readiness landscape: Climate change, which increases the frequency and severity of extreme conditions and natural disasters; and an over-reliance on technology by connected society for whom information is inextricably linked to modern life.

The rising risk of an unpredictable climate

Climate change alters every facet of society, from safety to economics to national security. Architects used to build for a “hundred-year storm,” but now assume a storm of that magnitude will happen every decade. Forest fires are an annual norm. Some of the world’s biggest cities will be underwater. And climate refugees, displaced by lack of resources or simply the disappearance of their lands, present an international challenge.

Photo by Lucas Marcomini on Unsplash

Technology can help here, modeling data to predict weather and save lives and offering essential communications services to first responders and emergency workers. But those systems must be built to withstand disasters.

Relying too much on digital systems

The second source of fragility is our reliance on digital systems. More than a billion people use Google Maps every day to navigate — and most of us have long ago thrown out our maps.

Street View is available in much of the world today as part of Google Maps. (Source: https://www.statista.com/chart/11778/which-countries-have-google-street-view/)

Improving digital resiliency

How should we think about disaster readiness and emergency management in this new landscape? This is a big question for us in 2019, so we’ve added lots of related content:

  • In putting together the lineup for FWD50 this November, we reached out to experts in the field to pull together a workshop on disaster readiness that’s open to all FWD50 attendees with a Conference+Workshop ticket. We’ll tackle how to think about resiliency, both in terms of citizen preparedness and government response.
  • Indonesia has been using open data to help deal with emergencies. Yantisa Akhadi of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap is joining a panel to discuss the role of open compute, open source, and open data in building reliable services atop public data.
  • World-renowned security and IOT expert Alasdair Allan takes the stage to talk about how vulnerable many of our modern systems are in a talk that promises to be both provocative and controversial: Everything is Broken.
  • We’ve devoted one of our four Circlesquare topics to climate, disaster, and emergencies. This is a series of four interactive conversations, looking at how technologies like AI, sensors, open computing and clouds change the way we think about resiliency.

Want to join the discussion, and prepare for tomorrow’s crises by creating the tools, processes, and mindsets that help us survive? Grab a FWD50 ticket now.

What you’re thinking in 2019

Each year, we survey FWD50 participants to find out what they’re interested in learning, where their challenges are, and what technologies and policies hold the most promise in the coming months.

Trying to guess what people are thinking is hard. Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash.

We use this data to shape the content we run, the speakers we invite, and the questions on our Call for Proposals (CFP). You can check out the 2017 and 2018 results if you want to see how things have evolved.

We also try to be a bit provocative—asking people to take sides on a nuanced subject, or proposing a false dichotomy. While this helps us get a better understanding of extreme optimism or concern, some respondents called us out on it: One respondent complained, “some of your questions were loaded with assumptions with no room to correct the assumptions made.” Fair point; we’re still learning.

About the respondents

We had a few hundred responses to our survey. So here’s a quick look at the results, starting with some background on who responded.

Most respondents worked for federal governments in their countries.

The vast majority of respondents worked for the Federal Government—but not necessarily the Canadian government. We had responses from a dozen countries. In addition, one in five respondents was from the private sector.

We asked respondents which of several options best described their job:

  • 7.1% were in systems engineering and architecture.
  • 4.4% were in software development.
  • 8% were in data analysis, reporting, and data science.
  • 10.6% were in sales and marketing (mostly from the private sector.)
  • 15.9% were in policy design and writing.
  • 26.5% work on project or program management.

We got responses from around the world—a reflection of the global reach FWD50 has added in the past couple of years—but just over half of respondents were based in Ottawa. 8% of them had completed a local college; roughly 50% had an undergraduate degree; and an impressive 36.1% had a postgraduate eduction (Masters, Ph.D, etc.)

In 2018, we welcomed over 50 government departments to the event. From the responses, it seems like there are specific government departments—particularly those associated with tech, automation, and service delivery—who responded the most.

What policies are most important?

Technology is so pervasive, it shapes every aspect of policy. We asked respondents to rate the relative importance of each policy area listed below from “unimportant” to “critically important.”

Top-ranked areas of focus included climate change, digital rights, and the consequences of automation—with less emphasis placed on transportation, natural resource management, and policing:

Nobody marks these as “unimportant.” With better survey tools, we’d have forced people to allocate finite points across categories, making the choices harder, but those tools lack accessibility features needed to ensure everyone can respond.

Diving deeper into policies by respondent makeup

When we break these responses down by demographic data, the results are instructive. For example, the higher a respondents’ level of education, the more likely they are to think that dealing with climate change is critically important:

Level of education and importance of policy focus on climate change.

Similarly, technical respondents who work in data science and systems engineering are less concerned about ensuring digital rights & privacy than policymakers or the program managers who actually have to implement and defend technology.

Field in which a respondent works and the importance they attach to ensuring digital rights and privacy.

We also asked an open-ended question about what topics we missed. Accessibility, Indigenous Services, Rights and Freedoms, Immigration, and a general interest in the impact of globalism and foreign policy on Canadian government came up a lot. Here’s a tag cloud of those topics (even though tag clouds aren’t very good to work with, statistically.)

Tag cloud of responses in the “what did we miss?” section.

It’s worth pointing out that in the past two years, we’ve run several sessions on indigenous digital government, inclusion, and accessibility. In surveys, respondents often rate these topics as important, but when they “vote with their feet” actual interest is significantly lower, making these some of the least-attended sessions in the conference.

Clearly we need to figure out how to better get these topics the attention they deserve.

Completing sentences

We asked respondents to complete a sentence in one of two ways, with the two options being extreme positions. By analyzing the responses, we can understand the relative sentiment around various policy initiatives.

How much should government regulate tech?

First, we asked about technology regulation. Should government regulate technology to ensure compliance, accessibility, and proper use—or would a free-for-all approach of more experimentation and less control be better?

Respondents were mixed on this question, but indicated there might be a bit too much regulation in government tech.

Is tech transformation getting enough funding?

Technology transformation is a major task for nearly every government department. But is it receiving the funding needed?

Respondents felt fairly strongly that such initiatives are under-funded.

Inclusion and accessibility in projects

One of the discussions that came up at FWD50 2018 was the tradeoff between fast, experimental delivery—in which the first edition of something might not have all the features of a final product—and ensuring that the product was usable by everyone even if it delays the iteration and learning that comes from rapid iteration.

Public-private collaboration

Another key issue was the balance between public- and private-sector innovation. Proponents of public-built tools worry about vendor lock-in and proprietary systems where tech licenses become a “tax” on government operations; proponents of private-sector solutions point to costly overruns and delays in visible government projects.

Ultimately, respondents felt there should be a balance of the two—a suggesting that this is a great topic for further discussion at this year’s event. But we decided to dig a bit deeper and look at differences in responses by members of the public sector (academics, governments, and NGOs) versus those from members of the private sector (vendors and consultants,) since they have competing horses in this race.

More private sector respondents think the private sector should deliver tech.

The results are unsurprising — far more people in the private sector think the private sector should deliver technology, whereas more people in the public sector think it’s their responsibility to build and operate tech.

What technologies are important?

We live in a time of tremendous digital upheaval. With so many technologies from which to choose, which should government focus on? We asked respondents to rate how important various technologies will be to technology transformation.

How important are these technologies to government?

We’ve sorted the responses in this list by relative importance rating. AI, cloud computing, digital process management, and open data are very important; sensors, automation, and blockchain seem to be less so.

This is much more than prioritizing new features — many of these technologies have significant policy implications. AI may bring bias to decision-making; sensors can invade privacy; automation can eliminate jobs. Focusing on the right things is critical not just to government services, but to building the kind of society we want.

What’s holding us back?

We asked respondents what was preventing them from making the most of digital transformation. They cited permission to take risks and lack of training, as well as reliance on incumbent vendors and old technology, as the main culprits.

What’s holding us back?

Public versus private sector opinions on funding

We dug into the responses by public/private sector here too, to see if answers differed significantly across the two groups. They agree on the funding of technology transformation—both think it’s lacking, but a few government and NGO respondents think it’s over-funded.

Everyone thinks tech is under-funded.

Public versus private sector on distraction by the latest tech

When it comes to trying the “shiny new things” on offer, private-sector respondents deem it more of a problem than their public-sector counterparts.

This suggests a frustration on the part of vendors that governments favour emerging technologies while neglecting basic block-and-tackle digital improvement.

What formats work best?

We run a wide range of formats at FWD50, from workshops and keynotes to panels and interactive sessions like Circlesquare.

Respondents found interactive sessions and keynotes most useful.

Surprisingly, workshops were not considered as useful as keynote talks in this question, despite many respondents suggesting additional interaction and hands-on sessions focused on solving actual problems in other responses.

Other formats

We asked people to tell us what other formats they’d like to see in the event. Here’s a partial list (though most people left this field blank) ranked by popularity.

  • Participant-led sessions with speaker quiz and audience polling. (3)
  • Hackathon on known problems or those obtained through crowdsourcing. (3)
  • More depth/advanced talks. (3)
  • Lightning talks. (2)
  • Live webinars for remote attendees. (2)
  • Samoan Circle (participants in the center, surrounded by listeners.) (2)
  • Sessions with a specific question, objective, or outcome. (1)
  • Executive roundtable. (1)
  • Walk-and-talk meetings (1)
  • Pre-event courses with examination and certification. (1)
  • Design thinking/mapping session. (1)
  • EvolveUX session. (1)
  • VR or virtual presence sessions. (1)
  • Generational panel (young, middle, older panelists.) (1)

Other speakers

We asked respondents to name their dream speaker.

  • 15% of suggestions were actually for speakers who’ve taken the stage at past FWD50 events—Alex Benay, Audrey Tang, Pia Waugh, Bianca Wylie, David Eaves, Hillary Hartley, Joni Brennan, and Lane Becker, for example.
  • Only 25% of the suggested speakers were women. We aim for a 50% female lineup each year, so we have work to do on this, but we did get a few great suggestions to follow up on.
  • Many people suggested really famous speakers—Barack Obama, the Pope, Bill Gates, Elon Musk. It’s great to know respondents think FWD50 is worthy of those kinds of speakers; we’d need help to get some of them on our stage, but it’s worth a try.
  • Several suggested bringing in experts from other fields—bankers or venture capitalists, for example—to offer an outside perspective on policy topics and how they solve problems that governments might face. Others thought journalists would be great to add to the mix.

Other notes

We asked respondents what else we should think about. Paraphrasing, here are some of the more important or common answers:

  • We need a discussion on mid- to long-term issues such as data strategy, the risks of quantum computing, and AI ethics.
  • Limited space kept some people from attending the event, so we need to scale up capacity (we actually sold out the conference in 2018.)
  • Some of the questions we asked were loaded with assumptions with no room to correct those assumptions. (While we tried to shorten the questionnaire for the sake of speed and making responses easier to analyze, we definitely over-simplified some nuanced topics worthy of more debate.)
  • Some people asked us to create regional, intermittent events and community platforms to generate an ongoing dialogue with stakeholders. An annual event is good “punctuation” but not enough. Others suggested live-streaming the event, either at a reduced cost or for free, so folks who can’t travel can still learn from the content.
  • Focus on geopolitical and global economic issues, such as nationalism/protectionism and a retreat from international agreements, that will affect government.
  • Look at build-versus-buy decisions more closely—particularly around the true cost of maintenance and support. Where should the Federal government work with Canadian tech firms to implement existing solutions rather than building new ones? Since this came up elsewhere in the survey, and there is clearly disagreement, it’s worth focusing on at the event.
  • How should we protect the Internet, the Internet of Things, private data, and social platforms? We haven’t talked much about a Digital Charter of Rights, but this seems like a good place to start.
  • Less discussion about what needs to change and what is now possible with digital, and more focus on the technical and cultural how of actually implementing change and creating adoption. Some folks suggested more workshops and hackathon-style focus on a problem at the event itself.
  • Information management and digital preservation was a common concern across many respondents.
  • Some suggested that FWD50 needs a Deputy Minister council session focused on leadership enablement and a focus on outcomes. Others wanted to bring topics from the event into the Policy Community Conference in February. We definitely need to ensure the participation of policy-makers and program managers as well as technologists.
  • Some respondents suggested we use online question forums to let the moderator solicit questions from the audience for the “fireside chat” Q&A sessions.


One person asked if we could set up a volunteer program—but didn’t leave their email address (we made the form anonymous; hopefully they’ll see this!) The good news is we have one: Dozens of volunteers help us put on the event each year in return for a pass. You can go to the contact form on our website and select “I’d like to volunteer” from the form:

Want to get in touch with us? Here are some of the things we’d love to discuss with you!

Next steps

Surveys are an imprecise art, but they’re a good way to get a general sense of how a group is thinking. Thanks to the hundreds of people who spent time completing this survey, we learned a lot. You’ve helped shape this year’s conference more than you know. We’ve reached out to many of the respondents who asked us to contact them directly about a particular response.

Got something to say? Propose a talk for this November!

Building the 2019 content

We’ve locked in roughly half of our speakers for the November 2019 event. Having analyzed the survey responses, we’re opening up our 2019 Call for Proposals, so you can suggest a topic you’d like to cover or a speaker you know who would be good on stage. The CFP will be open for a couple of months, so get your suggestions in before the summer break. We’ll be announcing the preliminary schedule and initial lineup in the summer.