Key AWARN Resource: Social Science Research from the National Academies of Sciences

By John M. Lawson, AWARN Alliance Executive Director

Creating advanced alerting is not just about engineering and bandwidth. It’s also about social science. Ultimately, the most elegant technology is only effective if people understand and respond to messages and take action to minimize danger. Later this year, AWARN Alliance user groups will build on our alerting prototypes and create replicable templates and protocols. We hope to have social scientists at the table.

The AWARN Alliance was invited to make a presentation to the Committee on the Future of Emergency Alert and Warning Systems of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which met on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. The committee of distinguished academics and industry and public safety professionals is completing a report funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science & Technology Directorate. They will be recommending future research directions, and I was honored to brief them on the Advanced Warning and Response Network and our research needs.

Building on a Foundation of Alerting Research

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A major focus of the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) committee has been the 90-character Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA). According to a 2015 study for NAS by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), longer messages, as well as messages that change the traditional order that content is presented, are more effective. The study also investigated additional elements that could be included in a WEA. For a 280-characater mock WEA, adding apps and hyperlinks appeared beneficial, whereas adding maps, did not. Both elements “merit additional research.”

START’s and other social science research has examined alerting in what might be called an environment of “scarcity,” where bandwidth, and therefore, message content is limited. The problem of “milling,” in which people delay taking action because information is insufficient or unverified, is a well-documented alerting shortfall. We believe that geo-targeted, rich-media, and personalized AWARN Alerts can mitigate the problem of milling and improve alerting at many levels.

Possible New Research Areas

In my presentation to the Committee, I outlined some possible research areas in an environment of what I call rich-media “abundance” that could help us create the most effective AWARN alerts:

  • Explore the social science of rich-media, interactive alerting,
  • Identify and inventory rich-media assets of alert originators,
  • Align alert originator assets with ATSC 3.0 capabilities, and
  • Drive latency out of the alerting chain to use AWARN for Earthquake Early Warnings.

We commend the NAS and their Committee on the Future of Emergency Alert and Warning Systems. It is encouraging for the AWARN Alliance to be invited to participate in their important dialogue. The past, current, and future work of this vital group will inform the work of the AWARN Alliance as we move beyond prototypes to the actual deployment of next-generation alerts.


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