Image credit: TLC Jonhson
The WildFire Risk Assessment tool was built to assist public utility companies make informed decisions about when turning off utility equipment might help avoid igniting a fire. As a far second, we thought the tool would be helpful to government agencies that were helping oversee public utilities, in order to check the wisdom of decisions made by utility companies in relation to fire risk. It was therefore really important to get feedback from utility companies as to what they thought of the tool.
However, that did not come to be.
Due to litigation concerns, the utility companies were very clear that they did not want to engage with us in any way. PG&E for example, who was still dealing with legal matters concerning wildfires in 2019, was our most promising target, since they were the largest in California and the team had several contacts within the company. However, as each of our contacts learned about our tool and what it was doing, they very emphatically said they could not be a part of our project.
So how do you get feedback when your primary customer won’t work with you?
You have to be a bit creative.
First, we engaged with our secondary customer. Though the California Public Utilities Commission wasn’t our primary customers, they provide oversight for public utility companies in California giving them a strong incentive to ensure that these companies are making the right decisions especially in the area of wildfires. While we were not able to show them our product, we were able to get some feedback for our general direction and methodology and get a sense of what would be important for them with regards to a tool like this.
Second, we engaged with people who had the same aim as us. We engaged with researchers from UC San Diego whose area of research was specifically wildfires including how to prevent them. With them, we not only got to exchange ideas and review our methodology but we got them to look at our visualizations and get feedback as to their usability.
Third, we engaged with who we could - our classmates, our families, people who care about wildfires. While not technical nor wildfire experts, these were people who were familiar with the problem and the impact of being able to tell if the conditions were ripe for a wildfire. One of our design principles with the visualization was to also make them very intuitive for the layman, that people could just land on our website and start interacting with our visualization - making the feedback of this third group still valid and usable.
Obviously, we would have loved more feedback but the group worked with what we have and we think we were able to build a tool that would be useful regardless.