Pictographs in Disaster Communication for Linguistically Challenged and Illiterate Populations: A Survey on Background and Existing Practices

Pictographs in Disaster Communication for Linguistically Challenged and Illiterate Populations: A Survey on Background and Existing Practices

Lutz Frommberger, Nuwan Waidyanatha
DOI: 10.4018/IJISCRAM.2017040103
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This article describes how pictographs (or pictograms) can be an important means to communicate information about natural disasters to people that are lacking the capability to understand written text. This does not only include illiterates, but also foreigners not speaking the local language. While it is widely accepted that pictograph-based communication can play a major role, there is no established workflow to include this kind of symbols in early warning or disaster reporting practice. This article investigates the topic of pictograph-based communication systems, especially in the field of natural disasters, with a focus on the use of linguistically challenged populations. The authors analyze existing literature, take a look at existing pictograph resources, analyze a first field study with marginalized populations and derive conclusions for a design process for pictograph-based disaster communication systems.
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Disaster Communication

When natural (or man-made) disasters appear, it is of critical importance to communicate about them. Disasters can be a significant threat to lives, livelihoods, and food security. Communication about natural or man-made disasters is critical to mitigate their consequences: instructions for disaster preparedness are sent out to people, early warnings try to reach communities before they are affected, and instructions after a disaster stroke are critical to restore public life again. Furthermore, affected people will issue reports about disaster occurrences or call emergency hotlines. We refer to all these communication processes in the context of a natural or man-made disaster as disaster communication.

Disaster communication like this runs through various channels (radio and TV stations, newspapers, mobile alerts through SMS or Push messages, loudspeakers, sirens, etc.) to make sure to reach as many people as possible. Especially, with the availability of mobile devices drastically increasing, mobile text-based communication (e.g., through SMS or via smartphone weather forecast apps) plays a major role these days. However, text-based messages are not comprehensible for everybody: parts of the population are not able to read the messages, because of lack of formal education or language problems. Especially, this holds in less developed countries, many of which are increasingly struck by natural disasters due to climate change. To not exclude those people from disaster communication, graphical representations through pictographs can play an important role, but it is not implemented in current disaster communication practices and only sporadically researched. In this paper, we collect experiences and research on pictograph-based disaster communication to lay ground for further research and last-mile implementations.

Information Content of Disaster Communication Messages

In disaster communication, we distinguish two directions: first, alerts, going from an official body such as a natural disaster management agency to the general public as an early warning message, and, second, reports, issued by individuals to report a calamity to an official agency requesting for assistance.

Early Warning Messages

Early warning messages consist information to warn the general public of an upcoming event. A typical message would look like this:

2017-06-01 the Meteorological Services forecasts 100 mm of rain over the next 24 hours in the Big-Glades mountainous area; more than 50% chance of flooding in the Color-Valley low-lying area; people in these areas should prepared to evacuate in the next 06:00 hours.

Basically, such a message consists of the type of incident (storm, flood, …), a location where the incident is about to take place, time and date of the incident to occur, an indication of severity and/or urgency, and, very importantly, recommendations of actions to take by the people (such as evacuation, securing goods, etc.). The latter we call response actions.(Jones and Botterell, (2005) specified these information pieces, amongst others, in a general format for exchanging all-hazard emergency alerts and public warnings, namely the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP).

Disaster Report Messages

Disaster reports, such as distress calls, go the other way around from an individual to an official entity. One such report might look like this:

The river water is overflowing and started flooding the area; there are ten families in the Outback-Village that needs immediate assistance to evacuate from the danger.

Important pieces of information here are (as in early warnings) type of incident, location, time, severity, plus additional information that might be incident dependent such as the number of people affected, number of injured people and types of injuries, needed actions to be taken (e.g., need for evacuation, provision of medical attention).

An important property of both types of disaster messages is their importance, as not understanding or ignoring them can be life-threatening. Especially, this holds for early warning messages. For the remainder of this article this should always be kept in mind – disaster communication has to be extremely clear and well understood and must not lead to any misunderstanding or even false recommendations.

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