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)
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.
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?
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.
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?