Join us
Orange welcome sign that reads Royal Geographical Society with IBG.

Become a member and discover where geography can take you.

Join us

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.

Main challenges of communicating and understanding risk

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.


"How do you make that information useful for decision making? How do you make that information useful for actually informing a response?"

Naomi Morris, Data Manager, World Health Organisation


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.


"The situation had changed so quickly that even the forecasts hadn’t managed to capture the growing intensity of the hurricane and the devastation was huge.”

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.


"Whether they are an insurer or a reinsurer, or broker, they have different needs and timescales. We have to create a single suite of products that accurately addresses all their varied needs in a timely manner.”

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.


Audience and communication

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'.


"They don’t want to know about the science…you have your 30 seconds, elevator pitch, as they say, to get across what that risk is.”

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.


"…it requires a really good sound understanding…of people’s perceptions, of their concerns, of their beliefs, as well as their knowledge and their practices.”

Naomi Morris


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. 


Missing, incomplete, and imperfect information

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:


"(We had) civil protection asking ‘What’s going on?’ and the population saying ‘What’s happening in here? Where should we go? Where is it safe?’ and that difficulty of communicating that we actually didn’t know.”

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:


"…two key things are metadata and reproducibility. Being able to see where you got that information from, when, and the source, as well as ensuring the end-user to be able to reproduce our workings is very important.”

Dr Kelvin Wong


By having clear provenance and lineage, it enables the end-user to understand how any analysis or information has evolved.


Trust, social media, and miscommunication

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.


"Social media is a blessing and a curse for us.”

Brian Vinall


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. 


"Trying to find any stories that would reinforce what they really wanted to do which was not moving away from a dangerous place. And believing them.”

Dr Carmen Solana, on the public’s tendency for confirmation bias


Best practices and lessons learned

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.


"A lesson would be to listen very carefully to the real motivation. What do they really want to know? What do people want to know more about? How is it possible to encourage change? Is there any chance of changing what they might believe?”

Dr Carmen Solana


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.


"I would say it’s incredibly important to sit back, look at the question or questions you are actually trying to answer, because it is very easy to get lost in all of this.”

Naomi Morris


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:


"But the problem we have is the crying wolf and we are only as good as our last forecast. What do we do if we do it eight times and nothing happens? That’s the biggest challenge.”

Brian Vinall



Watch the event recording


About the authors

Dr Tina Thomson is a Founder and Co-Chair of the 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.


Suggested further reading


Share this resource

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY NC 4.0), which permits use, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, provided the original work is cited and it is for non-commercial purposes. Please contact us for other uses.

How to cite

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (2021). Communicating and understanding risk in dynamic situations. Available at 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