Tag Archives: Wikipedia

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?

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Infographic: A world without wikipedia

Created by: Online University
Online World Blacked Out

Crisis Mapping, Crisis Crowdsouring and Southern Storms

Post by: Kim Stephens

Photo courtesy FEMA photo library: Heckleburg, AL

A couple of weeks ago the #SMEMchat group discussed crowdsourcing and crisismapping and I’d like to revisit that topic again today. Whenever I give talks on this subject a lot of people indicate that they have never heard of crowdsourcing. But the wikipedia definition is fairly straightforward: Crowdsourcing is the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to an undefined, large group of people or community (a “crowd”), through an open call. Jeff Howe, one of the first authors to employ the term, established that the concept of crowdsourcing depends essentially on the fact that because it is an open call to an undefined group of people, it gathers those who are most fit to perform tasks, solve complex problems and contribute with the most relevant and fresh ideas.

I think this definition is best understood by using an example. If you have ever watched the local news and heard the station ask folks to send in pictures of an event (usually weather) then you are witnessing crowdsouring. There is an implicit incentive structure here: the local news channel gets to choose from hundreds of pictures and does not have to hire a photographer; those who contribute get to have their picture shown on television. (There are many books and articles written on this topic–see my bibiliography, I have an entire section on the topic.)

Essentially there are two types of crowdsourcing during a crisis:

1. The provision of intelligence/information.

During this past week’s Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs hearing on the importance of social media in emergency management, the Administrator of FEMA, Craig Fugate, alluded to crowdsourcing by referring to citizens as sources of information. The “task” that is being outsourced is simply the task of providing information from the field. This information answers the first question after a crisis: What just happened?

Washington, DC, April 22, 2009 -- W. Craig Fug...

Image via Wikipedia

In Administrator Fugate’s written testimony, he states: “We value two-way communication not only because it allows us to send important disaster-related information to the people who need it, but also because it allows us to incorporate critical updates from the individuals who experience the on-the-ground reality of a disaster.” In other words, the technology now exist to crowdsource the inflow of critical data regarding the situation after a crisis. Just like the local news station asking people send in pictures, emergency managers can have access to information that allows them to understand the event from the perspective of those immediately impacted, just by monitoring YouTube. For example, there were hundreds of videos of the tornados in Alabama on Youtube, posted in realtime, giving anyone with a computer or a smart phone a great perspective on the amount of damage that likely occurred. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HhzDs1B4YA&feature=related

2. Gathering/Sorting/Making Sense of Crisis Data

If people in emergency management are uncomfortable with data provided by the crowd via social media, then this second type of crowdsourcing is even more uncomfortable: Asking the “crowd” to help gather and sort this data. The emergency management community, however, should understand this concept because it has become a reality after every recent disaster.

There are many organizations whose stated missions are to help organize the crowd as well as the data: CrisisCommons, Org9, Humanity Road, Crisismappers: StandbyCrisis Task Force; Sahana, Tweak the Tweet, and Ushahidi–I’m sure I’m missing a few. The mission of CrisisCommons and the sub-group CrisisCamp–whose co-founder Heather Blanchard also testified before the above-mentioned congressional committee, can serve as an example of the type of support these groups provide after a crisis:

…to connect a global network of volunteers who use creative problem solving and open technologies to help people and communities in times and places of crisis. CrisisCampers are not only technical folks like coders, programmers, geospatial and visualization ninjas, but we are also filled to the brim with super creative and smart folks who can lead teams, manage projects, share information, search the internet, translate languages, know usability, can write a research paper and can help us edit wikis.

The recent tornadoes provide a great example of all of the above mentioned groups’ work. One of the task they are currently performing can be boiled down to one sentence: matching need with the desire to help. This, of course, is fundamental task after a crisis: all disaster plans have Volunteer and Donations Management Support Annexes because it is well understood that if not well organized and planned for, volunteers and donations can sometimes hinder instead of help the response and recovery efforts. Furthermore, volunteers that are turned away can become vocal about not being “allowed” to help, creating a political problem for the responding organizations as well.

One of the main tasks these new volunteer organizations perform is what Patrick Meier, co-founder of CrisisMappers, describes as crowdfeeding: providing information from the crowd for the crowd–skirting or bypassing the “official” response organizations altogether.

How is this done? New communications technologies, such as social media, allow people to broadcast their needs to anyone willing to listen. Above is an example of a “tweaked” or MT–modified tweet, by a Humanity Road volunteer. The stated need was posted by the Salvation Army, who tweeted that they are serving meals for volunteers (the hyperlink provided allows those interested in helping serve get more information). RVAREGal simply tweaked the information so that it could easily be read by a computer for inclusion in a database. She added hashtags for #need, #info and location #loc. As this database of information is built, it can then be upload into a visualization platform, such as Ushahidi. This has been done in support of the southern storms and you can view it at Alabama Recovery Information Map.

The Ushahidi map is a not only a visualization of the information, but also creates an entire ecosystem: links to original source, the date it was submitted (which is key since this information does expire); a description of the information and additional reports with similar data; as well as a form to submit needs or resources directly.

In conclusion, I always like to ask: what are we learning?

  • Non-governmental organizations and the volunteer technical community are working to gather data from the crowd after a crisis and put it into platforms easily used and understood by the general public–they are not waiting for permission by any government agency, and they are usually not registered as a “VOAD”.
  • The public freely shares information about their situation (I need help/I can provide help) on social platforms that can be seen by anyone in the world–not just local response officials.
  • Response organizations could turn to the volunteer technical community for help in sorting through large amounts of data after a crisis in order to process it into usable information.

As Patrice Cloutier stated on the chat, “We ask the public to be prepared, with social media plus mobile technology, they also want to participate….embrace it!”

Resources:

For more information on the origins and descriptions of crisis mapping see “What is Crisis Mapping? An Update on the Field and Looking Ahead” by Patrick Meier.