When the recent 6 metre tsunami hit the Samoan region, killing 189 people, there unfortunately wasn’t time to warn their people.
But there was time to warn their neighbours in the South Pacific.
New Zealand had several hours to crank-up the tsunami warning machine. The police did their best to round up people on the shoreline, but apart from that all we got was out-of-date news reports, government websites which were light on detail and the internet rife with speculation and rumours.
In New Zealand SMS (text) messages warning people in high-risk areas arrived 3 hours too late. How many people on the East Coast of New Zealand could have been killed if this was the big one? Potentially thousands.
My previous article covered how bad the information out there was at representing where the tsunami could strike, the risk and what to do. The graphics which were available were highly technical, easy to misinterpret and in most cases was retrospective data of what had actually occurred – not predictions of what was coming.
And we have to take into account human nature. In New Zealand when we hear a tsunami is coming a fair number of us just assume it’s yet another false alarm. Hundreds even go down to the shoreline to watch it coming in.
Why? Saying “go to higher ground” isn’t specific enough. Some will think that means the big sand-dune a few metres from the shoreline.
I believe we need to give people a clear message at a glance, and just enough detailed information that they’ll take it seriously.
So, while I don’t claim to be a tsunami expert, I decided to have a go at creating a ‘general public’ information graphic which could be populated with data in real-time (or by hand and published online within minutes).