A flood in Denver.

Colorado 100 Year Flood – Does Your Analysis “Speak”?

Photo: This image from the Suomi NPP satellite’s VIIRS sensor shows the storm system that has devastated towns in the foothills of the Rockies in central Colorado

The daily and evening news has been inundated with stories about the massive flooding near Denver, Colorado. One of the stories I came across was from NBC news, which  contained an interview with USGS Hydrologist Robert Kimbrough.  In the interview, Mr. Kimbrough did something I have always wanted to do. He did something I wish  agencies responsible for river gaging and flood forecasting had done for years. He called the flooding event in the Denver area the “one percent annual exceedance probability flood” instead of the “100 year flood”.  According to Mr. Kimbrough, the USGS has adopted this new form of flood description and has stopped referring to these events as “the X year flood” to avoid miscommunication with the public about what this recurrence interval actually means. (….yes…you can have 2 or more separate 100 year floods in the same year….)

This made me appreciate that we, as water resource professionals, have a “dialect” just like any profession.  We liberally use acronyms and can sometimes be accused of speaking in tongues….frankly, just like any other profession. To this end, I pondered, what are some rules of thumb to consider when communicating information to stakeholders or to the public in general?

How do we make sure we’re not making something seem simpler than it is?

Some systems, especially water resource systems, need to have context when explained to stakeholders without water resource backgrounds, and therefore should not be oversimplified.

To complicate matters, communication of news, and in particular science related news, is changing rapidly.

Where there used to be science related news in newspapers, radio and TV and scientific journals, people and professionals around the world today getting more and more of their science news and information from the internet,  which  more and more provide snippets of information not necessarily containing the context of the information communicated.

In my experience I have found a few simple guidelines that have proven most helpful in communicating information to those outside the water resources circle.

The first is to remind myself that the analysis and the associated statistics do not necessarily “speak” to the reader. Simply presenting results does not tell the whole story.  You need to give a voice to your analysis.  Take the analysis and turn it into or connect it to a story. Secondly, focus on striking the balance between the right amount and type of information to support the connection to the details. There is always a danger in presenting too much information, as it can lead to confusion. But then again, just as detrimental to a message is not enough information resulting in a lack of context. It’s up to you to strike the right balance. Lastly and probably most important, the analysis should always focus on the whole significance of the information you are conveying.

Those affected by the floods in Denver are feeling the importance of the information at every turn of their day, and will for some time to come. Calling this storm the “one percent annual exceedance probability flood” now has meaning to those affected by the floods. For some analyses though, the results may not translate as importantly to the reader and the meaning may have to be exemplified in a way that is more significant.

I imagine that these rules of thumb are obvious to most. Do you have ways of distilling your water resource information that you’d like to share? If so, please use this blog to share your ideas and success stories so that we can continue to evolve industry best practices together.

See you on the water.


1 Comment
  • Walter Andreeff
    Posted at 10:41 am, October 9, 2013

    I write for the public on occasion and I have to say that they would understand the 100 year flood concept better. It gives them something they can understand and relate to. Yes, I understand the point that such floods can happen more often than 100 years but… If the public reads or hears about the one percent annual exceedance probability flood in explaining a weather related disaster as they perceive it there will be a collective questioning blank stare in the entire community. Surely there must be a better way to explain the flood or annual exceedance concept that would make sense to people with at least a grade 10 level of science and furthermore still sound reasonable to those of us in the industry. And then make it even shorter for press people who seem to have a need for the twitter version of science. I recommend that any science professional appearing in public take a couple of public communication courses. It’s important for society and your community decision makers that they understand you. Especially during times of crisis.- just my thoughts on reading this good article.

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