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University Of Alabama Researchers Win Grants To Find New Ways To Communicate Weather Alerts


Severe weather emergencies affect millions  of people around the world every year. In the past decade, storms like Irma, Sandy, Harvey, Florence and Michael have left lasting impacts from the damage they caused in communities.

Tuscaloosa is no stranger to severe weather, still bearing scars from its tornado super outbreak in April 2011. Whatever the issue — flash flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes or hailstorms — communicating severe weather alerts is at the core of ensuring public safety and saving lives.

Investigating the message

Understanding how weather alerts work and the varying levels of impact they have on different populations provides a challenge for meteorologists and municipalities alike. What is the most effective medium for their given constituency? And how do they reach less-represented, vulnerable populations? These are the kinds of questions researchers are asking at the University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences (C&IS), and now they have secured the funding to find the answers.

Dr. Darrin Griffin of the Department of Communication Studies is one such researcher. In collaboration with UA’s Dr. Jason Senkbeil, from the College of Arts and Sciences, and Mississippi State University’s Dr. Kathy Sherman-Morris (Department of Geosciences), Griffin’s team received a grant of more than $250,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to conduct research on the accessibility and comprehension of tornado warnings among deaf, blind and deaf-blind populations in the southeastern United States.

“Ultimately, what makes blind and deaf populations different is their ability to receive messages,” said Griffin. “At the end of the day, our study is about effective messaging — determining what messaging is working and what isn’t working, and improving that messaging.”

Because these populations receive messages differently, communicating severe weather forecasts presents a challenge. Visual charts and diagrams, as well as language commonly employed during broadcasts, do not translate effectively. Griffin’s team wants to change that, making broadcasts more effective for all people.

Drs. Cory Armstrong and Chandra Clark with the Department of Journalism and Creative Media are tackling a similar issue. Funded by the Alabama-Mississippi Sea Grant Consortium, their research is investigating the effectiveness of different types of weather alerts and how those messages motivate people to action in rural and urban communities.

In both of these studies, it is the way messages are communicated that matters most. The difference between being in harm’s way or being sheltered and secure may come down to the ability of forecasters and media representatives to understand how people receive messages and what makes them take action.

Jason Senkbeil, left, and Darrin Griffin work with Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind Interpreter Gary Crook to prototype test their American Sign Language interpreting system. (University of Alabama)

Improving the message

Determining how to communicate in ways that best inform particular audiences can be difficult. For each of these studies, the challenges begin with understanding how the audiences process the information and discovering how to change the message in ways that improve their comprehension.

“The first thing we want to know is how people receive severe weather notifications — are they watching television, are they talking to their friends or are they checking social media?” said Armstrong. “Then we want to try and determine what specific words and visuals motivate them to action and what steps they take to prepare for severe weather.”

Clark developed six visual elements of weather broadcasts that were shown to cross-sections of the population in Biloxi and Pearlington, Mississippi, and Mobile and Magnolia Springs, Alabama. From there, Armstrong asked the subjects to evaluate which models would most likely motivate them to seek shelter from a severe weather event, namely tornadoes and hurricanes. Now, Armstrong is analyzing this data to develop guides for broadcasters, media personnel and meteorologists about effective ways to reach rural populations during severe weather outbreaks.

Cory Armstrong, right, and Chandra Clark, left, reviewed multiple models and selected six different weather alert methods to gauge public response and motivation to act for each model. (University of Alabama)

“If we can point out the key words and methods for how to announce severe weather, then ultimately we can help save lives.”

For Griffin, the ultimate hope is to create a system that can use existing technology and provide live interpreting in American Sign Language (ASL). ASL is a complex language, grammatically different from English and not directly translatable in the way that many English-speaking people assume. During severe weather broadcasts, closed captioning can be unreliable and, even when it is reliable, still fails to appear in ASL users’ primary language. Added to that struggle, weather broadcasts often include scientific language common to English speakers but less common to ASL users.

Griffin’s idea would help bridge this gap between English-speaking meteorologists and ASL users during severe weather events, saving lives by creating better access to urgent weather updates for deaf populations. The idea came to Griffin after viewing a video of a hearing ASL interpreter who used Facebook Live to relay an ASL interpretation of an audio weather broadcast to followers.

“I thought, ‘We could actually design that. Why not have that in place for real?’” Griffin said. “At the end of the day, it will increase [NOAA’s] tools for communicating with a vulnerable population.”

The concept features a picture-in-picture broadcast that enables the deaf population to view the broadcast alongside an ASL interpreter. However, the benefits for this study go far beyond building and testing this system. Researchers will conduct interviews with people in the deaf community in the Southeast and use the information to offer valuable feedback to on-air meteorologists as to what language is most effective in communicating with a variety of audiences.

According to Griffin, the concept of universal design, or making the world more accessible to all kinds of people, benefits everyone. Hotels that place the thermostat in arm’s reach of the bedside do not sacrifice design aesthetics in the process, and make a big difference for people with limited mobility. All guests end up gaining an increased usability. In the context of Griffin’s research, universal design would mean keeping the video feed that can be understood by hearing audiences while at the same time dramatically increasing the accessibility of the message for deaf audiences.

“Can we tighten up the bolts on the verbal message? That’s what we’re trying to do,” said Griffin. “We want to do universal design, to look at the deaf, blind and deaf-blind communities to increase effective messaging that benefits everyone whether or not English is their second language.”

Beyond the message

Saving lives and improving their quality are important parts of any scientific discipline. Whether the issue at hand is communicating effectively about severe weather to rural and vulnerable populations or any number of other life-changing advancements in communication, researchers at C&IS are a crucial element in the scientific process.

And the College is growing in its impact. In 2018, C&IS had 17 funded Research Grants Committee (RGC) proposals, making it the top RGC-funded college at the University of Alabama. These numbers reflect the disciplines’ significant influence as well as the role communication plays as a part of the greater research culture on campus.

“If you follow the philosophy and logic of science, you can use the same paradigm in communication as you can in biology, physics and chemistry,” said Griffin. “If I’m working alongside meteorologists, computer scientists and geographers to find a way to tackle common problems and showing that my methods are just as sound as theirs, that’s a benefit to the scientific community from an interdisciplinary perspective.”

Right now, C&IS researchers have active relationships with their colleagues across campus in the College of EngineeringSchool of Social Work, College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Human Environmental Sciences. These relationships fuel creative, multidisciplinary problem solving to improve lives in the community for generations to come.

The research culture is evolving at C&IS, and at its core is a group of dedicated scientists who are asking big questions, tackling global issues and securing the funding to discover solutions.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.

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