Inclusive Public Services for Linguistically Challenged presented @ CPRsouth2018

Smart Governments, as part of their Smart Cities programs, must include linguistically challenged in public information and services. Pictographs (pictograms or symbology) can play an important role in disaster communication. Our recommendations, presented at CPRsouth2018 in Maputo, Mozambique (208-10-05), were:

Photo credits to Nuwan Waidyanatha

  • NATIONAL POLICIES AND PLANS – Amend national emergency communication plans and policies to include modalities of disaster communication to support linguistically challenged; especially, life threatening information in alerting and incident reporting.
  • PICTOGRAPH DICTIONARY – Develop a, cultural context, national or regional pictograph dictionary (or thesaurus) to be used with ICTs by authorities in alerting and the public in reporting incidents.
  • DO MORE RESEARCH – Very little or no research has been carried out on the comprehensibility and appropriateness of pictographs (or other medium) for including linguistically challenged populations in disaster communication; hence, more resources should be invested for research and development.


Why do we need a common modality like pictographs:

Data take from UNESCO – Illiteracy rates,  World Bank – International tourism, & Ethnology – languages of the world

Illiterate populations (e.g. 30% of Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia) are marginalized and very little or no policies and practices are in place to include them in disaster communication. Illiteracy is also representative of poverty, it satisfies its inclusion as an indicator of vulnerability to disasters. Urbanization with poor seeking opportunities in the cities calls for developing inclusive societies for all; i.e. smart cities. Moreover, those foreign to the local language (e.g. tourist) and with temporary traumatic mental disorders (i.e. refugees), termed as functionally-illiterate, are equally marginalized. Therefore, text or voice-based messages are not comprehensible for everybody.

Brief outlook of our findings

Based on the research and findings of a field study in Sri Lanka and the Philippines we derive blueprints for successful disaster communication with pictographs and have proven pictographs to be useful in communicating disasters.

We presented individuals with the four pictograph variations, shown above. They realized that it had something to do with flooding and rain. However, there were ambiguities as to what response actions they should execute. Response actions are not thought of in the use of symbols in disaster communication. Symbols are mostly used on maps and with professionals in mind. Other finds were that some symbols were superstitious or, locally, represented or were used in a different context.

There was a suggestion from the audience to use Emojis as a pictograph dictionary; one that we had realized during our study and worth investigating.

Our conclusions were:

  • Local Design – Pictographs must be designed locally with target audiences to address cultural differences
  • User-centered Symbology – Usual recommendations for icon design might not hold for illiterates due to deficiencies in abstraction and categorization
  • Level of abstraction -Choosing level of abstraction is crucial due to different cultural background and experiences
  • Time and Numbers – Abstract concepts like time and numbers must be handled with care – important, but hard to communicate clearly
  • Response actions – Usually not considered, but crucial part of the information
  • Limited success – Evaluations do not show required comprehension rates, even with professionals


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