Tag Archives: Washington Post

Information Design: Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

Post by: Kim Stephens

Looking back on the year, there was one  article that stood out because of its clear use of graphics and imagery to communicate risk information. During the summer of 2013, the Washington Post published a short online report about the hazards at the Potomac River Gorge titled “The Perils at Great Falls.” This spot in the river is a deadly place where 27 people have died since 2001.  Standing on the banks, it looks deceptively calm, but it is what people don’t see on the surface that can kill–erratic currents, jagged cracks, potholes and uneven terrain can trap swimmers.  The article explained those hazards with imagery that eliminated the need to read even one word.  Some commented that the piece was the definition of information design: “…the practice of presenting information in a way that fosters efficient and effective understanding of it.”  (Wikipedia)

Screenshot 2013-12-12 08.32.32

Each of the major hazards in the river were given a graphical representation. In the image above the person is shown fishing off the bank: water rises rapidly and unexpectedly, sweeping him away. I have captured a screenshot, but the original graphic is animated.

The image below shows hazards beneath the water and on the banks–cliffs that tempt people to jump in, and varied terrain underwater that can kill if you dive in the wrong spot.

Screenshot 2013-12-12 08.33.08

The Dreaded Fact Sheet
Too often,  in the world of emergency management, images are occasionally included–if one can be dredged up, but they are usually not the focus of the message delivery. Below is a typical “dangers of [insert-risk-here]” pdf’d fact sheet intended for general public consumption. One glance and I can tell you how many people have read it..not many. I understand why this happens. There is a concern that if information is boiled down to just a few words and images, then that one key item will be left out. This begs the question: how effective are long and involved explanations if the intended audience won’t take the time to read them?

Screenshot 2013-12-12 09.03.40

 Images and Social Media

Luckily, communicating with the public has gotten easier–almost everyone is connected to the internet (81%) and a large portion of our audience  has smart phones in their pockets (over 60% as of July, 2013). Yet, I still see some EMA websites with risk information readily available–as long as you download the pdf.

However, as emergency management organizations become more comfortable with social media communications,  some have adopted the culture that includes heavy use of imagery.  Pinterest, for instance, is a great example of a social platform almost solely devoted to communicating via images. As an example, here’s the same “flood-water-can-be-dangerous message” on the Maryland Emergency Management Agency’s Pinterest page.

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Twitter, surprisingly, is also a social platform where the use of images is key to building audiences and engagement. Recently the company added inline viewing of pictures and video, making it yet another social network where the image is king. In fact, according to Bufferapp, research even prior to this change showed that Tweets using pic.twitter.com links were 94% more likely to be Retweeted. Data analysis also suggests that Tweets with images also are more likely to receive clicks in the first place.

Following my own advice, I will keep this short, but for 2014 I think the trend of communicating risk and preparedness information to the public by using images and graphics will continue to be vital.  We have to present information in a way that our audiences want to receive it, not in the way that is most convenient–even if uploading a PDF is handy.

What do you think?

Ready or not the public uses Social Media in crisis situations

A Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) ladder tr...

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

The article “Respectfully Yours in Safety and Service: Emergency Management & Social Media Evangelism” by Latonero, et.al, (May 2010) is an interesting case study about the use of social media in the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD).  Brian Humphrey, the long-time PIO of LAFD, was the focus of the study since he has been the tip-of-the-spear with regards to the implementation social media in the response community: see this online interview with him on John Solomon’s blog.  The Latonero article is interesting not only because it discusses some of the advantages new media can provide to a response organization, but also because it presents the numerous challenges created by this type of communications medium.

Biggest advantage: “Bypassing mass media as traditional intermediaries.” The ability to engage the public in near real-time and provide them with another way to receive legitimate information directly from the Department became one of the key motivators for implementing this form of communication.

Biggest challenge: The ability to engage the public in near real-time. One quote  from Mr. Humphrey’s twitter feed illustrates the challenge: “270 voice mails and 2000+ non-spam emails expecting a reply. Dunno how or when I’ll get back to you all.”

This article leads to the question: Why engage the public through social media at all if it creates unreal expectations? One answer is that people are already using social media daily and will use it during crises, whether we like it or not. This article in today’s Washington Post “Twitter breaks story on Discovery Channel gunman James Lee” is a prime example: From the story

“The news of a gunman at the Discovery Channel’s headquarters in Silver Spring indeed traveled fast on Wednesday, but none of it came through radio, TV or newspaper Web sites, at least not at first. As it has with other breaking news events — the landing of a jet on the Hudson River in 2009, the 2008 massacre in Mumbai — the story unfolded first in hiccupping fits and starts on Twitter..”

At the American Red Cross Emergency Social Data Summit this past Aug. 12, 2010, Heather Blanchard, one of the co-founders of Crisis Commons made the presentation: “Closing the Gap Between Public Expectation and Disaster Response Reality,  Call to Action: Finding Common Language for Cooperative Response.”  She made several interesting and compelling points regarding how the emergency management community could solve the conundrum of both engaging the public through social media and also handling the vast amount of information the new media provide.

How? Currently, in most response organizations, only the PIOs are responsible for social media in terms of both sending and receiving messages. This quote from the Washington Post story illustrates how much effort is involved in taking the raw information from Twitter, in this case, and then turning it into actionable intelligence.

But as rich as Wednesday’s Twitter feed was, it was merely a starting point for reporters. “The initial information may have come to us through these tools, but we have to apply the old-media skills of vetting and serving as a filter” for what’s accurate, said Allan Horlick, president and general manager of WUSA-TV. “We can’t let raw info to go out over air. The front end is new, but we still have to do our work on the back end.”

Ms. Blanchard pointed out that during large events PIOs could easily become overwhelmed, as demonstrated by Mr. Humphrey’s tweet. Instead, she recommended that response organizations think about who in their community could be trained as volunteers to assist with data collection, aggregation and vetting, for example: students from local universities or people from local technology companies.

With regards to organizational structure, she presented an EOC org chart with the concept of a  newly created “technology cluster”. The cluster would include

  • an analytic cell
  • GIS cell
  • open source info
  • ESF Liaisons

The analytics cell would indicate their data requirements but would not process data: the “Data Operations Center” (which could be manned by volunteers) would search, aggregate, and vet information and potentially provide that information in a visualization tool.

This is an interesting proposition. Read through her slides and let me know what you think.