Risky Communications

Image: Dr Paul Cole

Faced with the soaring social and economic toll of natural calamities, in 2015 the world has adopted ‘a broader and a more people-centred preventive approach to disaster risk’.

The United Nation’s Sendai Framework recognised that a significant gap in our ability to deal with these events was in reaching the 'last mile' - the most vulnerable and exposed populations - with timely, understandable and actionable warning information.

Plymouth University geoscientists are working to deliver on one of the key ambitions of the Sendai Framework, namely to ‘strengthen the utilization of media, including social media, traditional media, big data and mobile phone networks, to support successful disaster risk communication’.

Working on the volcanic Caribbean island of St Vincent, Dr Paul Cole (former Director of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory) and PhD student Lara Mani have pioneered the development of a video game that uses virtual reality simulations of known historical events to convey future hazard threats. Field testing confirms the potential effectiveness of such ‘serious games’ in communicating disaster risk to at-risk communities.

Simply raising awareness of hazards, however, isn’t enough. Social science studies document how people with a high awareness of hazard threats often show little inclination to prepare for them. One of the gravest hazard threats confronts Istanbul, where 13 million people live alongside the North Anatolian fault line and face a high probability of a major earthquake in the coming decade or so.

PhD student Johanna Ickert is studying how Istanbul’s transformation of its most at-risk neighbourhoods has met strong opposition from local communities. With little signs of community preparedness, Johanna, a visual anthropologist, is exploring how film can be used in a participatory way to more effectively build local seismic resilience.

Image: Johanna Ickert

That resilience is especially critical in the days and weeks after a seismic shock, when damaging aftershocks hinder disaster relief efforts. To address this, a research project led by Edinburgh University is exploring the use of mobile phone technologies to get vital safety information to emergency managers and humanitarian agencies. Drawing on experience from Istanbul and elsewhere, Professor Iain Stewart is part of the team trying to understand how such information can be most effectively conveyed to those operating in crisis situations.

The findings from the current research underline the need for a holistic approach to risk communication that encompasses not just knowledge about the natural hazard but also understanding of the socioeconomics, infrastructure, governance and culture of a community that is affected. Looking forward, it will require fresh inter-disciplinary linkages and the recognition of the importance of engaging with local people to understand what information is actually needed by those who are living with disaster.