Color-coding is ubiquitous as an advisory tool, so it is not surprising that the George W. Bush administration put together a five-color system to keep the country alert to terrorism threats after September 11, 2001. Called the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS), it was dropped quietly in July pending a review of its shortcomings. The setback for HSAS illustrates some of pitfalls agencies face when they set out to communicate “colorfully,” and it seems the color aspects of their systems could be the least of the problems.
The ridicule began shortly after HSAS was introduced. “Like yesterday, apparently, [it] went from blue to pink and now half the country thinks we’re pregnant,” said late-night television host Jay Leno on 14 March 2002.
Leno, apparently, wasn’t striving for accuracy. There is no pink in the HSAS array. Each of the five standard and easily comprehended colors represents an increase in the level of threat and requires a corresponding action by the authorities and the public. Green represents a low level. Blue indicates guarded conditions. Yellow signals a need for elevated concern. Orange indicates a state of high alert. Red represents imminent danger.
“To give you an idea how sophisticated this system is,” Leno continued, “today they added a plaid, in case we were ever attacked by Scotland.” This gibe is also off the mark. Sophistication – if success and wide acceptance of the system can be regarded as indications – appears to be independent of the number of colors utilized.
One apparently successful system depends on just two colors — red and yellow. The soccer authorities have used them for decades to denote a player’s misbehavior. Players are cautioned with a yellow card, and dismissed from the field with a red card. And two yellow-card offenses equal a red card. The system communicates the same message to players and fans in Timbuktu as it does in any other country.
Three other systems that appear to have escaped ridicule depend on only few colors. Drivers stop on red, go on green and wait at an amber/orange traffic light. The Aviation Color Code and the US Geological Survey Volcano Hazards Program use the same pattern, adding only yellow to the array to indicate an intermediate state of alert.
A characteristic these systems – and HSAS – have in common is that they communicate accurately at a glance: there is accepted logic in the choice of colors and no time lost in trying to remember the significance of a particular hue.
Weather Edification Requires More Than a Glance
Leno might have found better food for ridicule in the National Weather Service (NWS) Web Based Watch/Warning/Advisory Map. It is updated approximately every 5 minutes with all warnings, watches, advisories and statements about the weather conditions that are in effect. Comprehension demands much more than a glance.
The map features 80 different named and numbered colors (supplied with RGD and hexadecimal codes) to denote 120 categories of actual and potential emergency conditions. Everything but terrorism, even child abduction, has been assigned a color.
Some conditions share a color. Silver signals a 911 Emergency Telephone System Outage, a Law-Enforcement Warning and a Local Area Emergency. On the color-crowded map, viewers are expected to see a difference between silver and thistle, the designated color for both a Brisk Wind Advisory and Small Craft Advisory, and to differentiate between these three colors and a host of other individually-named grays. Slategray indicates a Dense Fog Advisory.
And those names! How many people could visualize and match colors to the following names on the key to the map: bisque, dodgerblue, palegoldenrod, orchid, Navajowhite and peachpuff?
Fuchsia, another improbable color name on the key, signals a Tsunami Watch. Is fuchsia different enough from tomato (Tsunami Warning), or crimson (Typhoon Warning), or red (Tornado Warning), to know whether the appropriate action is to find high ground or to dive for the basement? The location on the map – coastal or inland – is a fairly reliable cue. This is just as well: the text key to the named colors is 120 explanations long. Clarification is not available at a glance.
The NWS system has been under fire for even longer than HSAS, but instead of shortening and simplifying the list in response, the agency lengthened it. Before the biggest overhaul of the system, the agency used 30 colors. On the NWS website, it explains that the 30-color system “caused complaints when we tried to use one color for several different watch/warning/advisory products. The new map process allows 80 colors (one for each product). In theory, this allows us to convey more information to the users.”
Limiting the number of colors does not guarantee comprehension at a glance. Though it features only six colors, the MyPyramid unveiled by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in April 2005 is criticized for being difficult to comprehend. The pyramid graphic of vertical stripes of orange, red, green, blue, yellow and purple replaces the horizontally-striped 1992 version and gives advice about how much and what kinds of foods the average person should eat each day.
HSAS has one more color than the Aviation and Volcano codes and MyPyramid has two more – all standard, unambiguous colors — yet these systems are under fire and the other two are not. This is the main clue that their shortcomings do not rest on color and coding, but on other aspects of the systems.
The science behind the dietary guidelines, which is revised every five years, has never been better but the new pyramid fails to deliver much of the knowledge gains, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in the April issue of Market Watch. In the same article, Ruth Kava, director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health, a nonprofit consumer education group, attributes the want of communicability to the layout of the graphic. Kava doesn’t like the vertical stripes. They are not as intuitive as the horizontal bars used to be, she said. “I don’t think the layout is as obvious in terms of the amounts of food one should eat as the old pyramid was.”
Vague Guide to Action or Strategy
A critique of the vertically-striped version in the Apr 2006 issue of the Harvard Heart Letter observed that “the USDA didn’t carry out the necessary changes needed to offer clear information on strategies for healthful eating.” This Harvard Medical School critique charges, in so many words, that that the system lacks sufficiently specific information to guide an action or strategy, and adds that it fails to convey key messages from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The HSAS system has been criticized inside and outside the government as vague and unhelpful, echoing the main criticism of the food pyramid.
Jack Cloonan, a 25-year veteran of the FBI and security expert, said in a report by Australian broadcaster ABC that HSAS makes sense conceptually, but its inability to convey details of the threats has rendered the warnings useless to the public and frustrating to security professionals.
“In the post 9/11 world, it is not sufficient to just say ‘unspecific sources provided vague or uncorroborated information about a possible attack,'” he said. The ABC report notes that other experts describe the HSAS warnings as “notoriously vague,” and “so pervasive they’re hard to take seriously.”
The review announced in July by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano was not the first time HSAS has been hauled in for a closer look because of criticism. The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) opened an HSAS inquiry in February 2004. Though the GAO focused heavily on the costs, the analysis revealed operational flaws in the system that Secretary Napolitano echoed in the July DHS review.
“Federal agencies noted that they faced a number of operational challenges in responding to the code-orange alerts,” the GAO explained. “For example, 12 of the 15 federal agencies indicated that insufficient information on threats was an operational challenge. In particular, 6 federal agencies noted that without specific information on threats, they could not effectively focus resources on protective measures to respond to possible threats. Other operational challenges identified by some federal agencies responding to our questionnaire include insufficient personnel training to implement protective measures, insufficient equipment and materials, and insufficient facilities and space, particularly to screen visitors.”
Napolitano wrote in July: “This system generated concern among federal, state, and local government agencies regarding whether they are receiving the necessary information to respond appropriately to heightened alerts and about the amount of additional costs protective measures entail.”
The DHS noted additional issues in the follow-through aspects of HSAS: the design appears to be incomplete. “The department [DHS] has not yet documented its protocols for executing notification. … Federal, state, and local government agencies we met with expressed concern about hearing of threat level changes from media and other sources prior to receiving notification from DHS.” The report noted that officials from DHS maintain that HSAS is evolving and that they are continually adjusting it to provide additional information regarding specific threats.
Security expert Cloonan raises another problem with HSAS, drawing parallels to the findings of a recent Carnegie Mellon University study to make his point. “The public tends to become immune to the warnings and sees them as a nuisance,” he explained. After studying the behavior of more than 400 internet users, computer researchers at the university concluded that because users encounter so many pop-up warnings in benign situations, they have become immune to the messages. Convinced that the warnings mean little, if anything at all, they leave themselves open to attack when they do click their way into dangerous territory.
The Carnegie Mellon researchers, who will present their findings in August at the Usenix Security Symposium in Montreal, say some internet warnings are so ineffective they should be reduced or eliminated altogether.
The study focused only on secure socket layer (SSL) warnings, the report explained, but internet users behave similarly when faced with other kinds of online warnings.
The most serious threat level is “Severe” or “Red” but the country has been almost permanently parked in “Elevated or “Yellow” since the system’s launch. “If you’re constantly bombarded with the same message over again, you tend to ignore it,” John Grohol, a clinical psychologist and founder of the online mental health resource Psych Central, told ABC “The message has lost any intensity or originality or uniqueness in our minds.”
Cloonan wants HSAS replaced with “a fact-based analysis scored on probability.”
Sources: Homeland Security Department;National Weather Service; Government Accountability Office; ABC (Australia); Market Watch; Harvard Heart Letter
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2009-08-05.