CCA Faculty Sara Dean: What could emojis bring to disaster response?


Jakarta, Indonesia, is regularly devastated by flooding. When disaster hits, Twitter has emerged as a powerful platform for communication, coordination among residents and emergency responses with the hashtag #banjir — the Indonesian word for flood.

“Right now a lot of the emergency response tools that are being developed are happening in a siloed way,” said Sara Dean, an architect and designer who previously worked on a web-based platform called Peta Jakarta, which gathered, sorted and displayed information on flooding in real time. “One of the advantages that we’ve found in social media is — even though it’s an untamed, noisy type of communication — it’s also a place where people are listening. And so they don’t need to know that an emergency is going to happen; they could even be very unprepared. But when you want to get their attention, you can get it because they’re already there.”

Recently, Dean has been working with a team of designers to develop emojis for disaster response. Emojis are the small pictorial symbols that appear on smartphone keyboards and social media. There are some existing icons that could be used to communicate climate disasters — a tornado and a flame, for example. But the system does not quite work as is. These symbols are typically used to signify a variety of meanings, and while the SOS icon might serve a purpose, many people will never find it tucked away in the miscellaneous tab.

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