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An Interdisciplinary Approach to Evaluate Public Comprehension of the “Cone of Uncertainty” Graphic

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  • 1 University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida
  • | 2 University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
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Abstract

The accurate interpretation of hurricane risk graphics is expected to benefit public decision-making. To investigate public interpretation and suggest improvements to graphical designs, an interdisciplinary, mixed-methods approach is being undertaken. Drawing on a series of focus groups with Miami residents that focused on understanding interpretations of the National Hurricane Center’s track forecast cone or “Cone of Uncertainty”, we developed an online survey targeting a much larger sample of Florida residents (n=2,847). The findings from this survey are the primary focus of this short article. We attempt to answer three questions: 1) What are the most frequent and trusted sources of information that Florida residents use when they learn that a hurricane is coming their way? 2) How accurately are Florida residents able to interpret risk based on the NHC Cone of Uncertainty graphic? 3) What is the relationship, if any, between the number of correct interpretations and income, age, education, housing location, housing type, or “most trusted” sources of information? Unlike previous public surveys that focused more on evacuation decisions, forecast usage, and perception of hurricane risk, our approach specifically pays attention to the details of design elements of the forecast graphics with the long-term goal of minimizing misinterpretation of future graphics. Our analysis suggests that many residents have difficulty interpreting several aspects, suggesting a rethink on how to graphically communicate aspects such as uncertainty; the size of the storm; areas of likely damage; watches and warnings; and wind intensity categories. Graphical communication strategies need to be revised to better support the different ways in which people understand forecast products, and these strategies should be tested for validity in real world settings.

Corresponding author: Scotney D. Evans, s.evans4@miami.edu

Abstract

The accurate interpretation of hurricane risk graphics is expected to benefit public decision-making. To investigate public interpretation and suggest improvements to graphical designs, an interdisciplinary, mixed-methods approach is being undertaken. Drawing on a series of focus groups with Miami residents that focused on understanding interpretations of the National Hurricane Center’s track forecast cone or “Cone of Uncertainty”, we developed an online survey targeting a much larger sample of Florida residents (n=2,847). The findings from this survey are the primary focus of this short article. We attempt to answer three questions: 1) What are the most frequent and trusted sources of information that Florida residents use when they learn that a hurricane is coming their way? 2) How accurately are Florida residents able to interpret risk based on the NHC Cone of Uncertainty graphic? 3) What is the relationship, if any, between the number of correct interpretations and income, age, education, housing location, housing type, or “most trusted” sources of information? Unlike previous public surveys that focused more on evacuation decisions, forecast usage, and perception of hurricane risk, our approach specifically pays attention to the details of design elements of the forecast graphics with the long-term goal of minimizing misinterpretation of future graphics. Our analysis suggests that many residents have difficulty interpreting several aspects, suggesting a rethink on how to graphically communicate aspects such as uncertainty; the size of the storm; areas of likely damage; watches and warnings; and wind intensity categories. Graphical communication strategies need to be revised to better support the different ways in which people understand forecast products, and these strategies should be tested for validity in real world settings.

Corresponding author: Scotney D. Evans, s.evans4@miami.edu
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