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Symbols in Alerting

dream-flash-floodI had a dream once – I was walking along a river in China and then an audible alarm emitting from my mobile phone got my attention. When I looked at the screen, surprisingly, a symbol with a red border showing rising water and a human figure running uphill towards shelter, was displaying. Later I realized, being illiterate in Mandarin, a text message would have done me no good. However, the symbol made perfect sense. It was an immediate threat of a sudden-onset flash flood (possibly caused by a damn burst). The response action from the image was self-intuitive; especially, the red border insinuating it is an urgent priority message and that I should immediately seek higher ground to evade the strong waters. That is what got me thinking about symbols in alerting; especially, for mobile phones.

Often people are misconstrued by alert messages and act inappropriately because they have not fully understood the message; especially, when they are short-text messages with partial information. There are many challenges with cognition, or understanding, of public warning messages. UNESCO estimates, on average, 30% of South/West Asians and Sub-Saharan Africans to be illiterate. Those countries combined account for ~40% of the world’s population. Physically and mentally challenged persons, such as those diagnosed with Autism disorder are better served with symbology.

tornado_shelterWorld Bank tourism statistics have estimated over 955 million departures over the past 4 years (2008-2012) and the numbers to rise to 1.6 billion per annum by 2020. Could a Chinese tourist in USA, or any other person alien to English for that matter, understand a rapid-onset Tornado warning text-message? Paris is the most visited city but they fully function in French.

Studies show that every country in the world is home to more than one language; on average 6 languages, according to recent studies by Ethnologist. In most cases it is above 50, if we consider regions such as Europe, Asia, and Central Africa. Addressing alerts in each language is cumbersome. Although the Common Alerting Protocol content standard allows for carrying a message in multiple languages, delivering the message in each language overwhelms the communications networks.

“Symbols in Alerting” was the basis of my talk at the 6th Common Alerting Protocol Implementation Workshop that took place in Geneva, Switzerland (23-25 April 2013). There were seventy participants (70) from thirty severn (37) countries representing and several International organizations, Sahana Software Foundation was one of them; whom I represented serving as the Chair of the Standards and Interoperability Committee.


It is best to focus on “symbols in alerting for mobiles”. The challenges are in addressing all makes and brands. The most effective way may be is to host a small applet along with the pictograms in the mobile phone memory. Thereafter, trigger the appropriate pictogram using short-text CAP message for display. A customizable generic applet can be developed, then Cellular Operators can adopt that applet. Thereafter, customize it for the country-context, based on the country CAP-profile. The customized applet can be deliver, over the air, to the subscribers. The subscriber could further customize as to which alerts they would like to see and at what threat levels. The symbol-based alerts on the mobile can be triggered using Cell-broadcast, SMS, or HTTP(S) (REST-ful) strings.

Symbols are indeed effective provided they carry both the hazard and the required response action, as shown in the two images above. Colours and Numbers are a good way to present the priority (or the severity, certainty, and urgency) of the message. The common consensus of the workshop participants was that “symbols in alerting” is important and some initiatives must be exercised to research and develop a framework that is in in-line with the CAP standard. It may take time to understand the functional requirements, design parameters, and the process variables.


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