Testing our first Prototypical Pictograph Dictionary in the Philippines

We developed a prototypical pictograph dictionary and grammar around heavy rain instigated hazard events; namely ‘floods’ and ‘landslides’. This dictionary was developed from the findings gathered and analyzed from the field study in March.

Sahana’s Pictographs in disaster communication project is considering two disaster communication work flows; thus, downstream “alerting” and upstream “reporting”. In alerting, the concerns were around how we might present context, reference, severity, response action, and minimum response time. In the reporting context, the desire was to experiment with the “immediate needs” such as be vigilant and observe, evacuate, or do nothing.

Studying the alerting process was simpler, because it was mostly asking the participants explain what they understood in a pictograph. Reporting was harder. In reporting we had to assume that the participant is constructing the message. Ideally we should have presented the participants with symbols and variations and asked them to construct the message. This is a time consuming in-depth study, one that is necessary in future research iterations.

The Sahana Researchers and Deaf Disaster Assistance Team – Disaster Risk Reduction (DDAT-DRR) spent time with deaf and low-literate community members in Cebu, Philippines. An entire family of three brothers and one sister were deaf. They use their invented home grown sign language. The sister could sign with the other Pinoy using common local sign. A challenge was for the DDAT-DRR facilitators to communicate with the native deaf participants; i.e., trying to harmonize with each others preferred signs and then interpreting.


The survey focused on understanding both the comprehensibility and appropriateness of the set of pictographs that we developed and the appropriateness of the underlying design grammar. Taking into consideration the outcomes of the previous survey we confined our symbology to floods and landslides. The alerting exercise had four variations, some with reference objects, and others with an indication of a “response action” – the action people are told to take, such as “evacuate”.


Some Visayans live in floating houses. The presented symbol was perceived as a floating house on a rainy day and ocean lagoon “waves”. It is uncertain whether the house serves as a reference or not. The waves and rain were not perceived to be threatening; after the house floats. We will know more after we analyze the data.

Several participants asked for a water-level gauge. In a categorical color coded ‘yard stick’ type measure, indicate the height. The water level indication is informative for the locals to make certain decisions. Concept derived around impact-based alerting and geographic risk mapping could be a basis for defining the categorical color coding.


The symbol of an “eye” was believed to be inappropriate and superstitious. The Fun Kumuga – the god of eye afflictions and other Ancient Visayan Deities are the reason. DDAT-DRR recommended using using two eyes instead of one. Then that may conflict with another called ‘Dalikamata’ – the many eye goddess that curses eye illness. It has been a challenge in identifying an appropriate symbol that would imply the context of “observe” or be vigilant and be mindful of an emerging hazard event threat.

We presented five variations to the participants back in March in Philippines and Sri Lanka and determined that the symbol with the eye and the telescope had a relatively higher preference. To observe or be vigilant is hazard event specific. Observing whether the sea is receding, after a felt earthquake, to decided whether or not to run. Such an observation would be different from a severe tropical storm. The observation here would require being tuned to the TV and Radio for further news. There is a need to further investigate these concepts for developing or finding appropriate and comprehensible pictographs.


It took the facilitators around 20 minutes to complete one survey with a participant. However, the facilitators felt rushed and were skipping some of the instructions. Mostly forgetting to inform the participant the difference between alerting and reporting. It was also noted that activities around the alerting and reporting components could be separated. The facilitators claimed that a bit more practice might have helped improve their survey conducting performance. Working with deaf communities implies special challenges in survey design and practices we examining.

DDAT-DRR recommended that any future iterations should make use of Smartphone or Tablet PCs  in the survey itself. After all the ultimate goal of our activities is to make use of mobile hand held devices for messaging using pictographs.

Many thanks to the DDAT-DRR and the Cebu Deaf Community.

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