Knowledge needs to be useful, usable, and used

“Useful, usable, and used”

This phrase is gaining in popularity among the DRR community and I love it! It was widely referenced this year at the two conferences I attended: the UNISDR Science and Technology conference in January, and the UR2016 conference in May. Throughout this blog post I will be referring mostly to disaster risk assessments, as this is where a lot of my experience comes from. However, many of the lessons can be applied to other forms of disaster, or general knowledge/information communication.

It is widely acknowledged that a gap exists between the research produced and that which is used. Many risk assessments are produced – these are costly in time, money, and effort. And yet often these risk assessments are not used. They are incredibly valuable, so why aren’t they used?

The reasons for this include the following:

  • Risk assessments are too complex or technical for those that are intended to use them
  • The risk assessments are not communicated or even dispersed to the end-user (particularly in academia)
  • Risk assessments can be over-simplified – by removing mention of uncertainties, it communicates false certainty of knowledge, which is dangerous
  • The language is not appropriate for the end-user – it is not produced in the language of those that need it – particularly when disseminating to the public. This is becoming a greater issue as greater movement and displacement between countries.

So how can scientists, researchers, and academics get around these issues to deliver this vital information to those that need it? Well, we can make the phrase “useful, usable, and used” our mantra.

Knowledge needs to be useful

Risk assessments need to be fit for purpose. In order for knowledge to be useful, the end-users need to be involved from the start. It should not be assumed the external ‘experts’ know what the community wants or needs. There needs to be a two-way dialogue between the users of knowledge and the producers of knowledge. Without this, science and technology may miss the opportunity to create knowledge that is needed, and may not be aware of knowledge gaps that require filling. By thinking about what is useful, research can build upon existing knowledge, rather than reproducing something that may already have been done, or producing something that is not needed.

Knowledge needs to be usable

The knowledge that is produced needs to be presented and in a format that is appropriate for the end-user. This will vary significantly based on who the knowledge is for. For example, risk assessments for finance ministers should be very different from that produced for a small village in a developing country.

Some things to bear in mind:

  • The language needs to be appropriate for the end-users. If this is for the public, think about the potential diversity of language within each context.
  • Talk their talk. For example, scientists and academics speak a different language to policy makers or finance ministers. This has two implications – use the appropriate terminology for your audience, and think about what matters to them. For example, convincing a finance minister to invest in DRR will be more effective if you present the information as a cost-benefit analysis of ‘investing’ in DRR to save expenditure in the future recovering from disasters.
  • Go for clarity rather than simplicity. For example, error and uncertainty are concepts the public and non-specialists often have difficulty with. But that doesn’t mean that you should eliminate communicating uncertainty altogether. Presenting the information as a certainty is potentially dangerous and can lead to ‘crying-wolf’ instances. Instead, there are ways that non-specialists can understand uncertainty. For example, percentage chance of events is easier to understand than a 1 in 100-year flood.
  • Think about the delivery mechanism for the audience. For example, how and what you might present to children will be different to adults. Think about innovative ways of presenting information, such as games, infographics, images, and use of colours. How the results will be used should determine the format of the information. For example, should the information be presented visually or verbally? As a report or as a workshop? Or as a one page print out which can be laminated and seen from across the room? Rarely is the answer to this solely to publish academic journal papers.
  • Bear in mind that sometimes the people who produce the risk assessments are not the best people to disseminate the results. Knowledge brokers can bring vital skills to bridge the gap between science and practice.

Knowledge needs to be used

Information must be passed on for it to be used. Academia is a prime example of hoarding information, as the traditional focus of disseminating research is through a medium that is largely inaccessible due to costs.

Whether the end-users care about the information you have produced will be determined by how well you communicate your findings. Disaster risk assessments are valuable information, but if they are not presented well, or disseminated in a way that engages with the end-user, they won’t be used.

The ‘so what?’ factor can be useful in these contexts. This coaching technique can be used to dig down to find the root message you need to convey. You will likely know why they should care, you may just be used to dealing with other people who already consciously know why they should care. You need to find a way of getting the message through to them that speaks to their concerns. Look at the issue from their perspective – what you care about may not be a priority for them. People also find it difficult to think about and prioritise long-term risks, especially when they are dealing with immediate livelihood survival threats. Make it matter to them.

The process should not end with the production of the risk assessment. The end-user should be involved in the end process. The findings may need to be talked though, questions answered, a follow-up with advice on how to reduce the risks may be needed – essentially the end process should ensure the information is actually understood and will be used. And not sit on a shelf somewhere.

If the end-users are not involved, the risk assessments will not be used. You need to ensure buy-in and empowerment throughout the process. You are not ‘swooping in and saving’. You are facilitating their needs and filling in a gap. Even better than providing them with a risk map is to teach them and provide them with the tools to create it themselves (e.g. Geoscience Australia’s work in the Philippines).



Sendai Framework Priority 1: Understanding disaster risk

  • To develop, periodically update and disseminate, as appropriate, location-based disaster risk information, including risk maps, to decision makers, the general public and communities at risk of exposure to disaster in an appropriate format by using, as applicable, geospatial information technology.
  • To promote and improve dialogue and cooperation among scientific and technical communities, other relevant stakeholders and policymakers in order to facilitate a science-policy interface for effective decision-making in disaster risk management.
  • To ensure the use of traditional, indigenous and local knowledge and practices, as appropriate, to complement scientific knowledge in disaster risk assessment and the development and implementation of policies, strategies, plans and programmes of specific sectors, with a cross-sectoral approach, which should be tailored to localities and to the context
  • To strengthen technical and scientific capacity to capitalize on and consolidate existing knowledge and to develop and apply methodologies and models to assess disaster risks, vulnerabilities and exposure to all hazards.
  • To enhance collaboration among people at the local level to disseminate disaster risk information through the involvement of community-based organisation and non-governmental organisation.
  • To enhance the development and dissemination of science-based methodologies and tools to record and share disaster losses and relevant disaggregated data and statistics, as well as to strengthen disaster risk modelling, assessment, mapping, monitoring and multi-hazard early warning systems.

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