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.

Science and Technology conference on the implementation of the Sendai Framework for DRR

The UNISDR Science and Technology conference on the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) was held at the Centre for International Conferences in Geneva (27-29 January 2016). The conference gathered together more than 1,000 researchers, policy makers, and practitioners to agree the science and technology roadmap for implementing the Sendai Framework for DRR.


The plenary session was opened by Dr Robert Glasser (head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction) during the plenary session, highlighting the importance of science and technology in not just the implementation of the Sendai Framework, but across many of the 2015-2016 international agreements. In 2015, such events as the Sustainable Development Goals, COP21, and The Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa all highlighted the central importance of DRR for decreasing poverty and implementing sustainable development. All of these agreements rely upon the support of science and technology for decision-making.

Glasser emphasised the need and ability we have to do more to decrease economic and human losses from disasters. He was echoed by Dr Pichet Durongkaveroj (Minister of Science and Technology for Thailand) who emphasised the need for science and technology to take a leading role in the world in helping to improve our lives.


“More than 300 billion people are affected by natural hazard-related disasters on average each year” – Dr R Glasser

It was interesting and encouraging to acknowledge how much science and technology has and is developing. However, the root causes of disaster risk (poverty and inequality) were rarely mentioned in the conference. The main discussions focused on the physical sciences, risk assessments, and technology. There were multiple calls for the consolidation of our knowledge, and better communication of what we already know, before we move forward to re-producing what already exists. However, it must be acknowledged that gaps do exist in our knowledge base, and new data is needed due to inequalities in data coverage.

A common theme throughout the conference was the difficulty of delivering and communicating scientific findings to the government and the public. Glasser held up the IPCC’s approach to delivering complex climate change information as an excellent example of communicating science; it lays out compelling and advisory information, including a section within the report which bridges the science/policy gap, and is written in layman’s terms. Links between science, technology and policy need to be improved. We need to connect with users of technology to ensure understanding and communication of knowledge. The need for hybrid expertise/translators/communicators became a recurring theme, crossing multiple divides: science/research, policy/decision makers, practitioners/NGOs, and the community/locals/those at risk.

This communication of knowledge cannot be one-directional. Glasser highlighted the need to understand the pressures as well as the problems faced by end-users. For example, we need to be able to quantify the current costs, and then the future costs (particularly due to changes in climate) to be able to engage with finance ministers on the importance of DRR. More detailed data is needed to focus the attention of decision-makers, particularly related to what they value. Whilst it can often feel contrary to the values of humanitarians, making the argument with support of economic cost-benefit analyses, and using appropriate language and terminology, can get budgets for DRR integrated into policy, therefore saving lives.

The majority of the sessions I attended focused on presented research, and specific case studies, which were rarely related back to the Sendai Framework. I felt that opportunities to discuss and contribute to the roadmap were few, and perhaps a better approach would have been to gather 100-200 expert scientists, practitioners, and policymakers together to discuss the roadmap by sections, and contributing feedback and comments to the main panel.

Whilst the conference did not close with an agreed roadmap, the three days were a valuable networking opportunity for future collaborative work, and the sessions highlighted the main challenges and opportunities for DRR in the immediate future.


Communicating Risk and Hazard to Policy Makers

At the UCL IRDR 5th Annual Conference this year, Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government, gave a presentation on communicating risk and hazard to policy makers. He summarized the challenges and common pitfalls that scientists often come across, and gave advice on how to look at the issue in a more mutually-beneficial way.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

– George Bernard Shaw

Put yourself in their shoes

He began by pointing out that from the policy makers point of view, they do not have the expertise or time to research particular topics, which is where expert scientists and advisers come in. Scientists are employed to do the research and then communicate it in such a way to help the policy makers make decisions. The first thing to remember is that policy makers have time commitments, which means that scientists need to communicate risk quickly and clearly, particularly in an emergency situation. They are intelligent people, but they won’t necessarily have your expertise, so conveying the information in a simple (but not overly simple way) is necessary. They understand the concept of uncertainty, error, and risk, so these issues do not need to be swept under the carpet, but don’t need to be explained in such a detailed way as you would in an academic paper. Policy makers are also different. So they may prefer different means of communication – therefore be prepared to explain things in a variety of medium.

What’s important?

Another key point to keep in mind is to think about what your audience cares about, and then translate your information into a way which is relevant for them. For example, the government is primarily concerned with the health, wellbeing, security, and resilience of the population, followed by economic advantages to the country. Think about how the information you have will impact on those things they care about, and convey that information. There is always a risk with trying to convey all the information you have ever gathered on the topic all at once – this is trying to boil the ocean. You will lose their interest. Instead, tell them only what is relevant for them to make a decision. The other information is not wasted – it has increased your understanding of the topic, and will provide a good back-up store of information should it be needed in the future.



There is often a confusion in the terms used by scientists, compared to policy makers (and even compared to “normal” human language). Scientists are renowned for having a specific definition of every term they use. Indeed, that is how science works, it requires careful and systematic labeling and defining of things, to avoid confusion and ideally to allow for better understanding of precisely what you mean. Ironically, in the non-science world, this can lead to misunderstanding if the exact terms are not fully understood, or are completely different to those used by the other party. Use of a common language, or at least awareness of the differences is needed, to be able to communicate effectively. Scientific precision needs to be balanced with the need to be understood by non-specialists.

Scientific concern vs public attitudes

The policy maker is not a scientist. Their concern is not making decisions solely on the scientific evidence. If it was, they would be scientists. Instead, policy makers need to balance a range of demands, including (but not limited to) public attitudes, economic implications, international relations, and scientific evidence. So scientists need to realise that they’re not have the same conversation. For example, the majority of the scientific evidence suggests nuclear power is low risk, it also suggests hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is low risk. However, the majority of public attitudes are against having a nuclear power plant or a fracking station in their back yard. Policy makers have to balance the scientific evidence with the public attitudes (etc) before they make a decision.

Differences in values

There is confusion often when science turns into advocacy. This is often experienced in the Environmental Sciences, probably because we are passionate about our topics. But we need to recognise that our values may not be the same as other people’s values. Things in this world are rarely black-and-white. Whilst science strives to define and logically evaluate evidence in an objective manor, we must remember that the non-science world is hugely subjective and opinionated. Scientists can help to provide evidence and guidance on topics, but must remember that ultimately, decisions are rarely made in policy based solely on the science.

Our job is to try to communicate that evidence in such a way that the message gets through as clearly and with as much impact as possible. By developing our communication skills, hopefully we can better influence and advise those whose job it is to make the decisions.

Ecosystem Disaster Risk Reduction

I have recently been following a Massive Open Online Course run by iversity on Disasters and Ecosystems: Resilience in a Changing World. After completing the Leadership track course, I thought I would share some of the concepts and case studies with you all before I begin the Expert track course.


What is it?

Ecosystem Disaster Risk Reduction or ‘Eco-DRR’ involves sustainable management of ecosystems and disaster risk reduction. Its aim is to use green (think environmental) rather than grey (think concrete) options to reduce disaster risk.

Ecosystems can be used for disaster risk reduction as they can address all three parts of the Risk equation:

(Risk = Hazard x Exposure x Vulnerability)

Hazard: ecosystems can prevent or mitigate the hazard. For example, the protection forests in mountainous areas of Switzerland decrease the risk of avalanches, landslides and rockfalls. Over 50% of forests in Switzerland are protection forests. These were planted in the 1980s to protect against landslides, rockfalls, and avalanches. They are very effective at protecting human assets at the base of mountains and in valleys.


Exposure: ecosystems can provide natural buffers against hazards. For example, sand dunes are fantastic natural buffers against hurricanes. After Hurricane Sandy, there was a clear difference in the destruction experienced by communities on the coast with healthy sand dunes, vegetation and wetlands, and the communities where the natural sand dunes had been removed. After Hurricane Sandy, the US government has spent US$ 40 million in buying back homes affected by Hurricane Sandy to create green spaces for coastal buffer zones.

Vulnerability: ecosystems can supply livelihoods before, during and after disasters. For example, in Orissa, India, healthy wetlands regulate flood waters and at the same time provide fishing opportunities and farming benefits.



What are the benefits?

The benefits of Eco-DRR are many; there are social, economic, and environmental benefits as well as decreasing disaster risk. Eco-DRR presents benefits all around. For example, in South Africa the IUCN Working for Water project has created jobs, helped water production, flood risk management, and biodiversity conservation.


Human losses as a result of natural disasters are decreasing on a global scale, but economic losses are increasing. This has implications on development progress of the less developed countries which are often most susceptible and vulnerable to disasters. By adopting Eco-DRR projects, multiple benefits to the economy and social structure of a community will be experienced, as well as increasing the ability of communities to cope with disasters.

Cities are and will become a huge risk in the future, particularly from flooding. Green areas within cities can increase infiltration rates of rainfall and the storage capacity in cities to decrease flood risks. The green areas will also provide multiple social benefits.

Eco-DRR is cost-effective compared to grey infrastructure options for DRR. Grey infrastructure is costly and sometimes fails: for example, levees broke in Louisiana due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the 2011 Japan tsunami flowed over the sea walls. Unfortunately, there are only a few examples where green vs. grey measures have been directly compared.

The multi-sector benefits of Eco-DRR is a big advantage because often people who are at risk of natural hazards and most vulnerable are less worried about disasters (seen as something that ‘might’ happen in the future) than about daily hazards (such as making enough money to eat, and maintenance of their livelihood). They can therefore be less engaged and invested in DRR schemes as a result. By addressing their livelihood, social, and economic concerns (and involving them in the process), DRR can occur in parallel.


What are the drawbacks?

Eco-DRR is widely considered a ‘No Regrets’ option.


What are the barriers to Eco-DRR?

From what I have seen so far, there do not appear to be any drawbacks to Eco-DRR, however, there are potential barriers to Eco-DRR.

Mathematical calculation of the benefits from Eco-DRR is not currently available. Also, widespread guidance is not available for green or bio-engineering. On the other hand, hard engineering benefits are mathematically calculable, have been around for a long time, and have national policies for guidance.



Eco-DRR can not only provide benefits to other sectors (e.g. social and economic), but can also provide and integrate well into a more sustainable and holistic approach to disaster ‘problem solving’. For example, Sikles, Nepal, was experiencing more frequent landslides due to climate change affecting rainfall patterns. The villagers in this remote mountainous region have invested in several schemes to address this. Trees have been planted to protect houses against landslides, which also provide a source of timber and fuel for the locals. Ecosystem conservation is integrated into the education system for all school children. Hydroelectric power from clear mountain streams provides each household with consistent, clean energy, reducing the need to cut timber for fuel. Efficient and smokeless cook stoves also reduce fuel consumption. By tackling the issue from multiple directions, and using Eco-DRR, the schemes are more sustainable and therefore more successful.


Last thoughts

From what I have seen and read so far, Eco-DRR seems to be a great approach to tackling disaster and climate change issues affecting our world today, particularly by tackling all three parts of the Risk equation, and by being of benefit to multiple sectors. It helps those at risk and vulnerable to disasters, and at the same time progresses their development and ability to cope. Not just for the chance of a disaster occurring in the future, but for their day-to-day struggle and survival.


In January 2011, Rio de Janeiro experienced severe flooding and landslides, killing 900 people. There are now efforts to restore and protect forests which were over-exploited by agriculture and urbanisation.

Coral reefs and sea grasses provide 40% improved coastal protection against beach erosion and storm surges in Jamaica.


After Typhoon Yolanda, the Philippine government has invested US$ 8 million towards mangrove rehabilitation.


In Sri Lanka the 2004 tsunami did not injure anyone at the Yala Park ecosystem resort because the dune system protected the resort, which was also built on stilts. Further down the coast, at a resort where the dunes had been removed, the tsunami killed 20 people.

International Day for Disaster Reduction: Older People

Today, 13th October 2014, is the International Day for Disaster Reduction. The theme this year focuses on older people. This afternoon I attended an event hosted by the Overseas Development Institute with the theme: Resilience is for Life: Disaster risk reduction in an ageing world. The three speakers were Chris Roles (Director of Age International), Silvia Stefanoni (Director of Policy and Strategy and Deputy CEO of HelpAge International), and Tom Mitchell (Head of Climate and Environment Programme at the Overseas Development Institute).

2 billion older people globally by 2050, the majority in developing countries

Chris Roles led the seminar highlighting the needs and contribution of all ages is needed to build resilience to natural hazards. We need to recognise that our world is ageing, both in developed and developing countries. These demographic changes will have implications on how we should prepare for and respond to disasters; an ageing population will require different help and priorities in the face of disasters.

Elderly Man Earthquake

Silvia Stefanoni from HelpAge International spoke on the vulnerability of the elderly in relation to disasters.  For example, the provision of food in the aftermath of a disaster should be nutritionally suitable for an elderly person. Health care priorities will be different. The elderly will have mobility issues, and are often isolated, without a means of evacuating, or support networks. Displacement patterns responding to disasters are different for the elderly population. HelpAge International found the elderly are often the last to leave a disaster zone, and the last to leave the refugee camps. Poverty as a result of no, or minimal, pension schemes increase their vulnerability. Another issue for older people is whether the state able to keep paying out pensions in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Older people are more likely to suffer from psychological distress from their experiences in a disaster.

75% of deaths during by Hurricane Katrina were comprised of >60 year olds

56 % of those who died and 89% of post-disaster deaths from the great East Japan earthquake were 65 years old and over

But Stefanoni also highlighted it’s not all doom and gloom. We can use this time to focus on the opportunities the elderly provide us with before, during, and after a crisis. The elderly are, by nature, survivors with a high level of knowledge gained throughout the years. They can provide information on local weaknesses, and tensions within the community. They are often respected leaders able to mobilise local communities. They have a knowledge of the hazards that have affected the area within their lifespan. This is particularly useful for regions where historical records of hazards are sparse or nonexistent. HelpAge International have led successful schemes to empower and educate the elderly, utilising them as a resource in response and preparation for disasters.

DRR elderly

Disaster Risk Reduction preparedness training in the Philippines. Photo: UNISDR

Tom Mitchell from the ODI then offered his congratulations to HelpAid International on their coverage of the issues for older people in their report: Disaster resilience in an ageing world: How to make policies and programmes inclusive of older people. He talked about the three revolutions that are occurring in the disaster field: (1) disaster data, (2) creation of risk, (3) disasters occurring in conflict and fragile affected states. He highlighted the data availability opportunity as the one with most promise for success and growth, particularly in relation to the age issue. We must first understand the problem before we tackle it. Disaggregated data is needed before a disaster occurs, and as part of the information gathering in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, to know where the vulnerable communities are and what their needs are. Essentially, disasters are anomalous occurrences, and therefore analysing loss data can be misleading. Running disaster scenarios to identify the vulnerable areas to disasters and the potential impact could be more useful for preparation rather than waiting for disasters to occur.


Source: United Nations Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2005).

History has shown disasters result in a disproportionate loss of older people. Their needs are often overlooked in disaster preparedness and humanitarian response. By 2050, the proportion of older people will have doubled to 22%. While the ageing population represents improvements in healthcare and development progress, an ageing population means an increase in vulnerability to risks and disasters. In combination with the projected increase in frequency and severity of natural disasters, this overlooked and vulnerable population’s needs must be addressed looking forward.

Lessons from Understanding Risk Forum 2014

Last week I volunteered for the World Bank’s Understanding Risk Forum 2014 at the ExCel Exhibition Centre in London. The Understanding Risk community is made up of academics, insurers, charities, and government representatives in the disaster risk assessment field. On a bi-annual basis, they meet to share knowledge and experience, collaborate, and discuss innovation and best practice in risk assessment. This was the first time I have attended the forum, and I met some fantastic people who were very encouraging in my own endeavours. I managed to get to about half the presentation sessions fitted in around my volunteering schedule.


I would like to share with you all the main points that came across to me from the experience.


1. Communicate Early

A main message that came across from the forum was, unsurprisingly, the importance of communication in risk assessments. But this was not just about effective communication about the end product to the users at the end of the risk assessment, as an afterthought. There are so many risk assessments that have been carried out that just sit on dusty shelves and are never used (roughly 40%).


The key here is to engage with the end-users right at the start of the risk assessment, to get their needs prioritised, so that the end product will actually be of use to them. There really is no point producing a risk assessment (no matter how accurate or advanced) if noone is going to use it. It just becomes an academic exercise. By engaging with the end-user early-on, the risk assessments can be tailored to their needs.

2. Engage and Empower

Another point that came across was how much more effective risk assessments were (in that they were used and something was actually done about the results of the risk assessment outcomes) came from engaging long-term throughout the risk assessment with the communities at risk from the hazards. By involving the communities or local government in the process of creating a risk assessment for their region, they become more engaged in the problems and opportunities it presents. It becomes their product, their problem, rather than something an outsider tells them is their problem. People are much more pro-active at doing something when they are engaged with the process. They become empowered, rather than excluded. It’s the difference between listening to a lecture, and having a discussion. An example of this is Geoscience Australia’s work in the Philippines conducting risk assessments.

3. Financial Incentives

It is a sad thing to admit, but the world revolves around money; companies and government are more likely to make changes based on financial reasoning rather than saving lives. Until we can change that paradigm, the only way to effect change in the way we deal with hazards is to frame it in terms of money. Several suggestions came up throughout the forum in relation to this idea of financial incentives, particularly in terms of encouraging and rewarding companies to insure.

climate change

I must admit up until then, I had always thought the insurance sector to be too focused on money and not useful in terms of saving lives or helping people much (fairly naive, I know). The discussions at the forum changed my mind. If a company has adequate insurance to allow it to recover from a disaster, then it provides a source of income for all those employed by it in the aftermath of a disaster. That means Joe Bloggs can keep going to work and pay for food and bills to keep his family safe. Without adequate insurance, Joe Bloggs (and all his colleagues) are out of work and the knock-on effect can ruin communities. The example given of this during the forum was Hurricane Sandy (2012), where many small businesses  in New York did not have adequate insurance, so have not re-open and probably never will.

If companies and government will only act based on financial reward or incentives, then let’s change our way of communicating with them. If the end goal is to be able to help people and reduce disaster risk, and this is a means of affecting change, then let’s change our dialogue. It might seem a bit morally-dubious, but it’s an effective means to an end.


Overall, the Understanding Risk Forum was a great experience to be immersed in for a few days. The presentations and discussions were interesting and often provocative. The speakers had huge amounts of experience to draw upon and talk about. Everyone was very approachable, and it was great to be part of a community aiming to reduce disaster risk, after feeling a bit isolated in the PhD world. I am looking forward to keeping in touch with the contacts I made, and hopefully attending the next forum in 2016.