Tag Archives: Communication

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?

Research about Communicating Risk becomes a Hard Reality: HardenUp.org

Post by: Kim Stephens


Image by P Shanks via Flickr

How do you create resilient communities?  It’s a tough question. Just yesterday I sent out a tweet about preparedness and the ubiquitous fact sheets that government agencies produce. Does anyone read them? If someone does read them, do they take action, e.g. prepare a  “go-kit,” or purchase insurance, etc.? Maybe, I mused, images of disasters would help encourage people to prepare. One of my colleagues @Cherylble (Cheryl Bledsoe)  answered “@Kim26stephens, you presume a natural interest in emergency management and I would tender ppl only interested if hazard is imminent #smem”.

An imminent hazard is certainly something that spurs action. Therefore, it would seem that if the public only knew and understood their risks (e.g. the frequency of hurricanes)  then they would take the necessary steps to mitigate those risks. But the research study “Communicating Actionable Risk for Terrorism and Other Hazards” – Michele M.Wood,1,∗ ,† Dennis S. Mileti et. al., published 10 June 2011,  found that it is much more important “… to emphasize the communication of preparedness actions (what to do about risk) rather than the risk itself.” They call this type of activity “communicating actionable risk“.  Another key finding, which is highly relevant in today’s connected world, was that “households in American are most likely to take steps to prepare themselves if they observe the preparations taken by others…”. I’m effectively boiling down an entire article to one paragraph so I suggest you read it,  however, it is interesting to note their conclusion:

“Communicating preparedness actions to motivate people to act is more direct than communicating risk and hoping that people will infer that they should take actions, and then, based on their inferences, act. This is a substantial departure from theoretical perspectivies and program practices that seek primarily to communicate risks so that people might, then, infer that action-taking is warranted.”

This research has been put into direct practice in Queensland Australia, an area of the world I seem to write about weekly. I am seriously in awe of the new website put together by Green Cross Australia in partnership with a veritable alphabet soup of government agencies, volunteer organizations, research institutions and even private industry called: “HardenUp: Protecting Queensland“. They do about a million things right here, but most importantly they do communicate actionable risk and then, from within the framework of the site, encourage people to share and promote their preparedness activities in a seamless manner.  As an aside, Green Cross Australia has a focus on climate change and helping people adapt to the potential changes that could occur, such as increased natural disasters and changing sea-level.

It’s not surprising that people will react if they see others preparing. If a storm is coming and I see my neighbor nailing up plywood on windows, I’m likely to think, “Hey, that looks like a good idea.”  However, how can we make more subtle preparedness activities visible and essentially social when there’s not a storm?  You guessed it: social media.  HardenUp offers multiple chances for citizens to share how they are preparing. When users create their plan (in a really nice interface, by they way) they are asked to post what they have done to their social network.

The “tips” section is also designed for sharing. It was envisioned, in part, as a way for people who lived through major disasters to communicate what they learned. In order to get the survivors input, however, some clarifying had to be done about the name of the site.

In a message to survivors, Jelenko Dragisic, CEO of Volunteering Qld and a HardenUp partner, stated that their intention for the website was definitely not to tell people who suffered losses from last year’s major flooding events to “Harden Up,” rather their intention was simply to communicate to the segment of the population that is not prepared. He also implored these survivors, who know the dangers all too well, to share their experiences.

 Many people think they can leave it up to insurance and government bodies and emergency organisations to come to their rescue, both literally and financially. Or they believe there’s nothing individuals can do when faces with a natural disaster. But those people are wrong…being prepared can make a hell of a difference. Knowing how to get out, having emergency supplies, being informed, really can be the difference between life and death…As people who’ve had direct experience of this, I invite you to share your stories with other Queenslanders.”

User-generated tips are also linked to social media to encourage peer engagement: visitors can view all of the tips and then click the “Like” button to instantly post their favorites it to their facebook page. Peer pressure is also subtly applied throughout their site, for example,  a “ticker” runs at the bottom of every page that states  the number of preparedness actions that have been taken to date: 10,530. I love the tag “What about you?” next to the number. In other words, according to a Green Cross representative, Jeremy Mansfield: “Harden-up is not about vulnerability, but a call to action to build self-resilience.”

Although preparedness is the goal, risk awareness is one of the objectives. The site designers have incorporated a database of over 150 years worth of community-based historical disaster data.  According to Jeremy:

One of the key differences of the site we feel is the ” Information asymmetry” providing people links to knowledge that contextualise  risks, preparedness/resilience and longer term issues around adaptation etc. We think it’s the first time a site has attempted to integrate 150 years of weather history along with regional climate history & trends served up at a suburb level.

I also really like how  “HardenUp” has been built to eventually become a one-stop shop for all emergency information. For example, the “In the event” Hub is turned on if there is a crisis and will house community and authority feeds and real-time maps. There is also a tab to search for volunteer opportunities.

I covet this site. I want one in my community, and I want to help build one for every state in the US. Am I being overly effusive?

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Tornado Stricken School District Uses Social Media to Aid Recovery

Post by: Kim Stephens

The massive tornadoes that struck Alabama and Missouri in late spring and early summer didn’t spare public school buildings. In Joplin, the school system suffered major damage. They also lost some of their students and staff: seven students and one staff member were killed. (These deaths occurred off-campus. The tornados struck in the evening.)  I often discuss how social media is used during a crisis, but what is not often highlighted by me or others is the great contribution social media make in the recovery phase–after the national media have left and the spotlight is taken off of the crisis. Joplin Independent School District provides a great example of how organizations can use the medium as a platform to pinpoint specific needs, reach out to those who still have an interest in helping, and demonstrate their progress and resilience, e.g. “We will open our school August 17, 2011.”

In order to tell the story of their recovery, I will highlight some of their experiences during the height of the crisis. I was able to reach the Communications Specialist of the Joplin’s school district, Casey Owens, who provided great insight to their social media presence, goals and policies both pre and post disaster. Of note, they were using social media for communications before the tornado. In particular, it was used at the district level with only a few people allowed to post content. The content was generally geared toward  highlighting overarching district success stories, or what she called “notables,” and announcing cancellations and other community-at-large information. Since the High School has so much information on its own, they are currently in the process of developing a page just for them. This is a pre-crisis post.

But after the tornado, their facebook page has become one of their primary means of communicating with the public, much more so than pre-event. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the tornado it was their ONLY means of communication.

Ms. Owens indicated that their website and email services were hosted on a local server which had either spotty or no service at all for at least a week. Sheer volume made cell phone service unreliable.  Therefore,  the communications department accessed facebook (and twitter) from home computers outside of the impacted area, and this was the only reliable source of communication. As an aside, Ms. Owens noted that the primary audience of their twitter account was most likely the media versus the local population.

I have mentioned in earlier posts that social media are the new flagpoles, the place were people rally in order to be accounted for after a crisis. This was also true for Joplin, ISD. In the immediate aftermath, they asked both staff and students to post information about their well-being directly to the facebook site. One of the first posts requesting this information received over 300 comments.

By May 27, 6 days after the storm, they had accounted for 97% of their staff and students.

Almost immediately, posts started to address how people could help with recovery. They also asked people to tell them what their needs were.

Interestingly, most people that commented to this post were still indicating that they were OK. Of the 97 comments only one requested assistance.

The district however, understood that there would be needs that had to be met, and with offers of donations pouring in, it was necessary for them to figure out how to organize the recovery effort into a systematic process. At this point, Joplin ISD turned to a program that was also in place (although somewhat recently) pre-tornado, called Bright Futures. The Bright Futures program is an innovative solution to try to increase their district’s high school graduation rate. They determined a child’s academic career cannot be viewed through tunnel but rather a prism. In other words, when is a child ready to learn? They aren’t ready to learn if they show up to school in flipflops in freezing weather, or if they are going hungry on the weekend, or if they don’t have any books in their home, or if they are homeless…the list is endless. The program utilizes social media to broadcast needs (without compromising the identity or privacy of the student) in order to find community resources that can meet those needs. Their facebook page lists their pre-crisis mission: “This program will serve as a vehicle to deepen community involvement in the Joplin School District’s efforts to tackle poverty issues and improve student academic performance. This will be accomplished through various partnerships.”

I asked Ms. Owens what impact social media had on the program. She indicated that the impact was profound. Their initial goal was to try to meet a student’s needs within 24 hours. With social media, the needs are met within MINUTES–literally.  In fact, they ended up with a different problem, many community members were disappointed that they were not able to contribute because the needs were met so quickly. Therefore, program administrators developed a list they keep off-line of people who want to help and what resources they have available. One interesting example of the program in action, a disadvantaged family’s water heater stopped working, the Bright Future’s staff  found a company willing to donate the parts to fix it and another person who could do the labor to make the repairs.

After the tornado struck, the Bright Future’s program is now doing the same mission but on a much larger scale: matching resources (which have come from all over the country) to needs. They allow people to post to the wall on the Bright Futures facebook page and after the tornado these mostly involve people describing what they are willing to donate. The program uses the site to post unmet needs as they become known. Needs can include everything from eye glasses to bikes and even, on rare occasion, housing needs for homeless children. Again, each of these needs are met within minutes.

On a broader scale, they have created an adopt-a-classroom program whereby people or organizations can contribute items for a specific classroom. They also have an “adopt-an-eagle” program, in order to ensure that all students school supply needs are met. Watch this great video on the overall program–which also highlights their use of another social media platform, YouTube. As a take-away lesson I think the most important thing another school district could learn from this example is the importance of having social media in place before a crisis. During a disaster or crisis event is no time to learn.

I’d like to thank to Ms. Owens for the wealth of information she provided. I hope you all continue towards a speedy recovery.

If someone tweets for help, and help doesn’t come, is the local public safety agency liable?

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Post by: Kim Stephens

Recently I talked to my local emergency management agency about incorporating social media in their communications strategy.  One concern arose that stumped me:  if an agency using social media receives a report of an injury through Twitter, Facebook or any platform, are they liable if they don’t respond?

Some people would ask:  Why wouldn’t a response agency be able to react?  Although most emergency response organizations have 24 hour operations, at the local level in particular often only one person is responsible for monitoring social media communications and that person clearly would not working ’round the clock. Larger organizations have Public Information Officers on duty 24/7, but small organizations do not have that luxury.

This limited capability is usually not what the public imagines, as we saw with the American Red Cross survey completed this past Aug. (See earlier post on this topic.) The finding that most concerns me here is:

…the survey respondents expected quick response to an online appeal for help—74 percent expected help to come less than an hour after their tweet or Facebook post. (American Red Cross)

This expectation has been of concern to me, so I raised the matter with some outside experts.  The essential questions deal with responsibility and liability.  Specifically, how can  response organizations engage in social media yet not raise public expectations that it will be monitored 24/7 and replace 911, and not expose the agency to future lawsuits?

From the experts I talked to, here are some answers.  According to Mike Ellis of Code Red at ECN,  and confirmed by Claire Reiss of the Public Entity Risk Institute, you simply make it clear on  your social media site, in a prominent place, that you do not accept emergency notifications. Similar to the message you might hear if you call your Dr.’s office “If this is an emergency hang up and dial 911.” You should also make it clear that the social media sites are not monitored 24/7 if that is the case. There is one caveat, however, if someone sends a tweet or a post indicating an injury and your organizations responds to that communication, then the clock will start. If you tell the person help is on the way, it should be on the way in real-time since an expectation will have been established.

This does not mean, however, that any injury a person asks you about has to be ignored. An example comes from the LAFD’s use of social media. In one case a citizen sent a tweet to the LAFD saying that he/she had burned a hand. The PIO, Bryan Humphrey,  told the person some general first aid info (e.g. place burn under cold water) but also said to call 911 if  the injury was bad enough.  Instead of just telling them to “call 911” he engaged the person, but also directed them to the proper call center if it was necessary.

This, however, doesn’t even address what could happen if the person received a busy signal from 911 and then turned to the agency’s Facebook page for help. That is another matter for another posting.

My personal opinion is that response organizations may, in the future, have to hire more people expressly for the job of monitoring social media. Could the new hires be part of the 911 center, since that is already activated 24/7?  In this era of decreasing budgets that probably is not likely to happen. Another option is to recruit trained volunteers, via the Citizen Corps or CERT programs at the local level, especially for use during major crises or disasters. This is an option we will explore in a future posting.

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