This case study summarises the key themes discussed by our panellists at the first fireside chat, organised by the Disaster Risk Management Professional Practice Group in February 2021.
Written by Dr Tina Thomson, William Forde and Dr Kelvin Wong.
In February 2021, the Disaster Risk Management Professional Practice Group held its first fireside chat. Designed as an informal and friendly conversation, the fireside chat allows audience members to ask experts questions around a common topic. If you missed the event, you can watch a recording of it on this page (scroll down). Here we summarise the key themes discussed by our panellists.
This event’s topic was Communicating and understanding risk in dynamic situations. Four panellists from different sectors of disaster risk management joined Dr Tina Thomson in a one-hour conversation:
Naomi Morris, Data Manager, World Health Organisation
Dr Carmen Solana, Reader/Associate Professor in Risk Communication at the University of Portsmouth
Brian Vinall CGeog, Operations Manager, Environment Agency
Dr Kelvin Wong CGeog, Senior Product Manager, Risk Management Solutions Inc.
Watch the fireside chat recording
The conversation opened with Tina asking the panellists about the main challenges they faced when communicating and understanding risks in a dynamic situation. Naomi opened from a humanitarian perspective, where a ‘dynamic’ situation is one that is rapidly changing. She drew from four examples of humanitarian response she had been involved in:
2011 Pakistan floods - Larger impact in the South (Sindh) due to to a significant and similar event the year before so minimal coping mechanisms;
2010 Haiti earthquake - Major infrastructure damage and loss of life followed by Hurricane Thomas and Cholera outbreak;
Afghanistan - Multiple complex and cyclical natural disasters combined with on-going conflict;
Lebanon - Refugees (primarily Syrian, but also secondary and tertiary displacements) crossing the Arsal border, causing impact on host community. Winterisation programming required.
Despite the differences in geography and peril, all four have one thing in common - the speed with which events can move with many variables changing at the same time. The real challenge is then to take all the data available and condense it into something clear and useful.
Carmen offered a different perspective, drawing upon her academic experience. Working primarily with volcanic emergencies, Carmen noted that there is great uncertainty around spatial and temporal aspects of the hazard occurring. Once it does occur, the static nature of traditional hazard maps can then be difficult to overcome. She further elaborated with an example from the 2017 hurricane season on the island of Dominica, where the hazard developed so rapidly that forecasts became redundant, and keeping on-track with communication presented a major problem.
Dr Carmen Solana, Reader/Associate Professor in Risk Communication at the University of Portsmouth, commenting on the impact of Hurricane Maria on Dominica
Kelvin shared his views from the insurance and reinsurance sector. He stressed the importance of time and timeliness to the re/insurance industry in communicating risk in what is now a 4D situation. He went on to discuss the challenges of creating a single output to meet the requirements of a diverse audience.
Dr Kelvin Wong, Senior Product Manager, Risk Management Solutions Inc.
Brian’s experience at government COBRA meetings for storm Christoph provided some very tangible examples of the challenges of managing the message. The Flood Forecasting Centre uses probabilistic modelling to understand the likelihood of a storm event. Its key focus is condensing all of the information available into a digestible ‘Red, Amber, Green’ status for the government to then take decisive action. Compounding this with a need for a five-day forecast and a burgeoning desire for a seasonal forecast takes the work into the realm of climatology rather than meteorology and this leads to concerns for Brian about people taking action on the back of uncertain information.
Despite all four panellists coming from very different sectors and backgrounds, they all agreed that it was vital to consider your audience first.
Brian described the two audiences involved in flood response with local resilience forums operating at a county level and the Flood Forecasting Centre which reports at a national level. The local forums are very much about community engagement and the Flood Forecasting Centre reports to the central government in crises. These two audiences have very different requirements, and the reporting must be tailored to each. Brian also touched on different approaches when 'reporting to communicate' versus 'reporting to take action'.
Brian Vinall, Operations Manager, Environment Agency
Naomi described how the humanitarian sector considers risk communication as a key component of preparedness which drives a focus on whom they communicate to and how they do this. Again, there is a divergence of the context, in this case, experts providing one-way communication whereas with recipients and beneficiaries it is two-way communication. Ultimately, the goal of communication is to enable people at risk to make well-informed decisions to protect themselves and their families. Naomi and her team have used many communication techniques ranging from media, social media, mass communication and community engagements - but at the end of the day, effective communication can only be achieved with a good understanding of the audience and their context.
Carmen raised some interesting points with regards to the psychology of communication. Brian added that the naming of storms is useful to provide a communication framework to enable first responders to manage a message, but the public will also have many different contexts for this and the perception of information through maps must be thought through carefully.
During the early stages of a developing event, there is sometimes a lack of information, or the data available are not of the best quality.
Carmen commented that one of the biggest challenges was incomplete information when responding to the 2011 Canary Island eruptions:
Dr Carmen Solana
For the re/insurance sector, Kelvin described how time is the most important factor. Information should be released as soon as practicably possible. More often than not, even if the data are not entirely accurate or complete, the clients would rather start working with imperfect information rather than waiting. To support decision making, supplementary commentary text explicitly stating any assumptions made as well as what is unknown is published alongside any data or analysis. Kelvin went on to elaborate on the importance of showing your workings as an event progresses:
Dr Kelvin Wong
By having clear provenance and lineage, it enables the end-user to understand how any analysis or information has evolved.
Continuing on the theme of trust and data quality, there was a question from the audience on the topic of the use of social media and miscommunication.
Brian described social media as ‘eyes on the ground’. Within the Flood Forecasting Centre’s social sensing toolkit, they can spatially map tweets to see what is happening locally. At the same time, Brian warned of the danger of ‘armchair experts’ who can spread misinformation. He stressed the importance of official media outlets, and the use of video interviews so that their message is less likely to be misinterpreted.
Carmen described trust itself as a dynamic situation, and how within social media it is very different to control it. Carmen used the example of Hurricane Maria which hit a community in Dominica which had been devastated by a previous hurricane but some who decided not to move used information on social media to reinforce their own beliefs. Naomi agreed and drew attention to the need, in a humanitarian context, for accountability to the affected population.
Dr Carmen Solana, on the public’s tendency for confirmation bias
The fireside chat was concluded with Tina inviting the panellists to offer a final thought on best practice guidance for the audience and any lessons learned along the way.
Carmen recommended thinking carefully as to what the end user’s need is and negotiating early on how risk will be reported. She had a healthy concern too - encouraging us, in an age of unfiltered social media, to consider people’s motivation for wanting information and to overcome rumour bias.
Naomi pointed to the huge amount of data that can be used and that it is incredibly easy to get lost in that. She felt it is important to take a step back and look hard at the questions you are trying to answer to ensure your communication will be relevant in a way that can be understood.
From a business-to-business perspective in catastrophe modelling, Kelvin emphasised the need to understand the end user’s need both in terms of completeness of data and timescales. Very often in his business, it is important to get information delivered quickly but in a way that demonstrates a traceable thought process, so the client gets the fullest picture possible of the uncertainty in the data.
Brian was cautious about the difference between data and information, and the use of probabilistic forecasting. He stated that while it is important to get that data out there, there is still a need for an expert to help interpret the data and convert it into information and ‘trusted guidance’. For probabilistic forecasts, he is wary of becoming a ‘crying wolf’ and losing the public’s trust:
Dr Tina Thomson is a Founder and Co-Chair, Professional Practice Group for Disaster Risk Management at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), Director and Honorary Treasurer at the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society, and Head of Catastrophe Analytics EMEA West-South, Willis Re.
William Forde is a Founder and Co-Chair, Professional Practice Group for Disaster Risk Management at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), and Senior Director at CoreLogic Insurance and Spatial.
Dr Kelvin Wong is a Member of the Professional Practice Group for Disaster Risk Management at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), and Senior Product Manager, Risk Management Solutions, Inc.
Flood Guidance Statement User Guide
Hurricane damage survey likely to help worldwide
Public Health Information Services (PHIS) Toolkit
Risk Management Solutions Event Response
Storm wave runups and sea level variations for the September 2017 Hurricane Maria along the coast of Dominica, eastern Caribbean sea: evidence from field surveys and sea-level data analysis
Ushahidi Crisis Mapping Haiti: Some Final Reflections
What happens at our Flood Forecasting Centre
The first in a new series of fireside chats led by the Disaster Risk Management Professional Practice Group, bringing together industry experts from a range of sectors and backgrounds to explore issues facing disaster risk management.
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Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (2021). Communicating and understanding risk in dynamic situations. Available at https://www.rgs.org/geography/advocacy-and-impact/impact/communicating-and-understanding-risk/ Last accessed on: <date>
Featured image: UAV photogrammetry image of Loubiere, Dominica, showing damage caused by Hurricane Maria courtesy of Toby Meredith, copyright University of Portsmouth
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