Searching for data - mapping fire safety in informal settlements

The challenge

People in informal settlements are more likely than those in planned areas to suffer disastrous fires and to struggle with recovery. A lack of quantitative data hinders preparedness, mitigation and recovery efforts. How can we begin to close the data gaps to create safer and more resilient informal settlements?

In this article

  • New research building on Arup's 'A Framework for Fire Safety in Informal Settlements'
  • Delving into the complexity of understanding fire risks in informal settlements
  • How data and interdisciplinary collaboration can help us better predict, prevent and recover from informal fire incidents

Behind the headlines of conflicts, disasters, climate change, and a rapidly urbanising world, informal settlements, refugee camps, and internally displaced people’s camps are growing.

Informal settlements and camps are complex and dynamic environments. Overcrowding is often common, as well as the lack of access to security of tenure and basic services like water, sanitation, and roads);. It is also common for informal settlements and camps to be in hazard-prone areas, vulnerable to disasters and the impacts of climate change. This vulnerability is exacerbated by non-durable housing and a lack of infrastructure to support effective emergency response.

These communities are particularly vulnerable to fire. Fires are frequent and spread with devastating speed. While the primary causes of fires are related to cooking, heating, and improvised electrical connections, there is limited data on the incidence and causes of fires in informal settlements and camps. Without data, it is difficult to understand fire risk and therefore to improve fire safety.

As pointed out in recent studies, fire risk in informal settlements is not simply about building materials and ignition sources. It is a complex multi-dimensional problem which requires socio-technical, multidisciplinary tools and coordination to provide a holistic basis for decision making.

Rebecca Lawson, a Fire Safety Engineer in our Sydney office, wanted to know if improving access to relevant data could help us better understand fire risk. Along with Adam Segall-Brown, Jia Khaw and Mai Tomida, Rebecca connected with Danielle Antonellis who leads our Global Programme on Fire Safety in Informal Settlements from our London office.

The devastating effects of fire in the Imizamo Yethu informal settlement (11th March 2017, Cape Town). Photo © Bruce Sutherland.

Building on Arup’s  A Framework for Fire Safety in Informal Settlements’, and previous research carried out in Cape Town, South Africa, Rebecca and her team piloted a research project on Khayelitsha, the largest informal settlement in Cape Town. Khayelitsha frequently experiences catastrophic fires and there is existing data available for many factors that relate to fire risk, such as demographics, location of roads and environmental factors like wind and temperature. Rebecca’s team is working with Arup’s GIS specialists to develop a platform for collating data and analysing correlations between different types of data.

‘We wanted to see if we could find data that would inform how at-risk areas are identified, without relying solely on human judgment and historical fires.‘  – Adam

This GIS project is critical as it is helping us understand what insights and evidence we can draw from existing data to understand fire safety in informal settlements. It is an important initiative contributing to Arup’s ongoing efforts to develop tools, resources and evidence to support risk assessments and strategic investments/efforts in fire risk reduction.

‘In informal settlements, there may not be clear ownership of data regarding fire incidents and fire safety. For example, in the aftermath of a fire, how do you capture how many people were affected? Who records this? How many fires occur without ever being reported or recorded? Although collecting fire incident data was not our primary focus, we began to appreciate some difficulties in obtaining relevant data.‘ - Rebecca

This project also highlights the need for interdisciplinary collaboration within Arup.  As Australia comes out of one of its worst bushfire seasons, the need for more data to inform our understanding of community fire safety is crucial. Ongoing research in this area will need to draw from disciplines like urban planning, risk, security and resilience, International Development, GIS and spatial data and disaster risk reduction, and will naturally integrate into climate change action and work towards UN Sustainable Development Goals.

'We focused mainly on identifying environmental, geographical and, social data based on what was publically available, but also tried collecting fire incident data which is important but proved more difficult to find.' – Adam
Unsafe electrical connections and open flame sources used for cooking, heating, and lighting are the primary causes of fires in informal settlements and camps around the world. Photo © Pollinate Energy.
‘Personally, what interests me is that the more research I do, the more I come back to the larger economic effect of fires. People can only rebuild with materials that they have the money for, so there is a cycle that happens. - Rebecca

The work that Rebecca and her team were able to do exemplifies Arup’s ability to support research initiatives from graduate engineers. The team were able to connect into the research being conducted from the London fire engineering team and to other local and global Arup teams. This initial research has strengthened and broadened internal connections amongst different areas of expertise at Arup who are invested in closing the data gap and addressing impactful development.


  • Fire risk in informal settlements is influenced by a variety of interdependent physical and socio-cultural, political and economic variables
  • There is a gap in data and knowledge surrounding fire safety in informal settlements
  • Mapping could help connect stakeholders and gather information related to fire safety in informal settlements and create more spatial awareness for fire engineers

This story was written by Keith Little, as part of the Research Review series. The series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Bree Trevena and Alessandro Liuti with contributions from Noel Smyth. Cover Photo © Aletta Harrison/GroundUp

Lead Arup Researcher

Danielle Antonellis
Danielle is a Senior Fire Safety Engineer in our Boston office

Ask Danielle about:

  • Fire risks in informal settlements and camps
  • City Fire Resilience, communities, and fire challenges
  • Wildfires
  • Context-appropriate fire consulting, emerging economies, and less/un-regulated environments


Research TEAM

Fire Engineer, Sydney office
Fire Engineer, Sydney office
Fire Engineer, Melbourne office
Fire Engineer, Singapore office

Have a problem or a project?

We work with industry partners, governments, universities, startups and community organisations. We do this through research partnerships, and as consultants and facilitators for foresight, research, storytelling and technical writing workshops.

research with us