Extending Early Warnings to Linguistically Marginalized Populations

In a work for the World Meteorological Organization, M. Golnaraghi [1] stated that “it is crucial that warning messages are clear, consistent and include risk information, designed with consideration for linking threat levels to emergency preparedness and response actions and understood by authorities and the population.” However, in its current state of practice, early warnings still marginalize various populations: Low-literates, migrant workers, children, elderly, people with disorders, and tourists – all of which might be unable to read and comprehend text-based notifications.

Inclusive Early Warnings

By considering Otto Nuerath’s ISOTYPE work and well known slogan – “words divide, pictures unite“, we are making early warnings inclusive for linguistically challenged populations. Currently, our research is studying the real-needs to carry out semiotics to develop a pictograph-based mobile communication system. Not only would it extend early warnings to the linguistically challenged, with receiving comprehensible downstream risk information, but also provide them with tools and means to inform distresses and incidents upstream. In this blog I will discuss the alerting or downstream emergency communication element only.

Early Studies in the Caribbean

My early interactions in this area of research was with Elizabeth Klute. Her aim was to advance the issue of providing alerting and warning across language barriers in the Caribbean region through the use of pictographs [2]. Her research emphasized on understanding the predominant styles of learning and whether pictographs were an acceptable communication choice.

The response to her survey revealed that there is a bias towards a mix method of using pictographs and keywords. For example, people preferred pictograph (D), for tsunami warning, which indicates a response action. Her research findings supports her hypothesis that the use of pictograms supported by signal words (although not emphasized in (D)), extensive education, technological standards and traditional communication would benefit public warning in reaching a broader audience and reduces the need for language translation.


Action-oriented Pictographs

One thing that we mutually agree, and comply with Golnaraghi’s [1] principle, is that pictographs in alerts and warnings should be an action-oriented message; thus, informing the hazard threat, its severity (or characteristics), and the necessary response action to take, as in figure (D). The Common Alerting Protocol is an International warning standard does exactly that by allowing for action-oriented warnings to be authored for dissemination. CAP is designed to carry additional resources such as pictographs for rendering agents to make use of. Meteoalarm is one such CAP-enabled system that is communicating country context pictographs to illustrate the hazard, in pictographic form but without the required response action.

Risk Perception

Someone with a language barriers receiving a text message and unable to decipher and understand the vulnerability and magnitude of exposure to the hazard is also unaware of the risk. Basing warnings emphasized on required action and not the hazard might lower the risk of people underestimating a danger  or a difficulty of perceiving the threat.

The challenge is ensuring that pictographs exist for every circumstance. The International Standards Organization (ISO) maintains a repository of Graphical Symbols. Some of which are designed for communicating hazards. However, a preview of the graphical symbol, in the ISO on-line browsing platform, did not return any search results for “mass movement” or “landslide” hazards. Hence, there is work to be done!

We are happy to be working on all these issues in our efforts to better understand the problem and innovate a solution; standby for more posts on Sahana Research and Action work.

This research work is made possible by Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA) as part of their Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) grant program.


  1. Golnaraghi, M., 2010. Systematic Development of Multi-Hazard Warning Systems. Summary of Report in Presentation Medium. Geneva: WMO-DRR World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
  2. Towards Regional Warning: a critical assessment of warning across language barriers, using pictographs, in the Caribbean. Elizabeth F. Klute, CEM August 2012 Dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment for the degree of Master of Science in Disaster Management

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