Improving Multilingual Crisis Communication

The Albury-Wodonga region has become a case study for a large multidisciplinary research collaboration to improve the emergency alert system for multilingual communities, with La Trobe University’s regional campus at the heart of the project.

Albury-Wodonga was selected as the pilot site for the Multilingual Inclusive Emergency Alerts (MIEA) project due to its cross-border complexities around government jurisdictions, community demographics and the environmental nature and geography of the region.

In addition, the region’s past climate-related emergency events, including floods, fire and drought, demonstrate the issues faced by emergency services when designing and distributing timely, appropriate community alerts during emergency events.

The MIEA project is focused on understanding the gaps in messaging for non-English speaking parts of the community, particularly smaller groups that are more likely to be isolated due to a lack of language familiarity.

La Trobe Research Fellow, Dr Samantha Clune, said the evaluation of the emergency alert system revealed some warnings often didn’t meet the needs of their targeted communities.

“During the pandemic we saw some of the translated COVID-19 messages were undecipherable by the targeted communities and there were issues around the accessibility of those emergency alerts,” Dr Clune said.

“It became obvious that the system more broadly needed attention, particularly in a changing climate and the region’s growth in multinational groups.”

Dr Clune co-led a smaller research project, funded by the Joss Family Fellowship for Future Researchers, to identify the makeup of the Albury-Wodonga community and the potential indicators of multilingual community needs. This information will feed directly into the broader MIEA blueprint.

The research team, comprising of Professor Raelene Wilding and undergraduate student Aaron Demiri, focused their attention on the Indian language groups and the Congolese – who represent the largest African community in Albury-Wodonga.

The team produced a migration timeline using ‘country of birth’ Census data, between 2001 to 2021, for India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the ‘born elsewhere’ – as a proxy for the Congolese community.

It revealed a steady increase in people from India, while the population of those ‘born elsewhere’ rose about 30 per cent from 706 to 2103 people over two decades.

“That’s a significant increase and, anecdotally, we know there’s about 1000 Congolese people living in Albury-Wodonga,” Dr Clune said.

“This demonstrated the demographics and complexities are changing quite quickly and therefore, the needs of the Albury-Wodonga community have also changed.”

Despite the region’s changing needs, the team identified local media coverage during 2023 did not relate to the needs of non-English speaking communities in terms of climate emergencies.

“This lack of local coverage implies an assumption that messaging is OK, which is being reflected in the broader MIEA project,” Dr Clune said.

“However, it represents an opportunity to engage in a different conversation around migrant communities in Albury-Wodonga.”

Richard Ogetii, Community Chief Executive at the Albury Wodonga Ethnic Community Council, said active steps must be taken to ensure that no section of their community is left behind or “retrofitted” into the emergency communications system.

“With the seemingly increased frequency and severity of emergencies, the needs of the multicultural communities can no longer be overlooked or neglected,” Mr Ogetii said.

“Our needs must inform the emergency alerts and related information, such as creating awareness of the existing emergency systems and providing timely information through appropriate channels.

“Anything short of this may negatively impact the community members.”

The migration timeline, past emergency events and the media coverage narrative provided crucial information to help inform the broader MIEA conversation.

It will be among five research projects presented by students and their supervisors at the Research Symposium, hosted by La Trobe’s Albury-Wodonga campus.

Aaron Demiri, who’s been under the supervision of Dr Clune, said the fellowship has been an opportunity to acquire new skills, such as deciphering Census data that speaks to the case study of Albury-Wodonga.

“I’ve learned how to better understand statistical data cubes and I am very grateful for the assistance I’ve received during my fellowship,” Aaron said.

“This project has been a real eye-opener into understanding the plight of non-English speaking people during a natural disaster and the need for improved systems.”

Benefactors, the Joss Group, a prominent construction business in Albury, funded the projects of the five undergraduate students.

The MIEA project is a large multidisciplinary research collaboration between La Trobe University and Good Head, with contributions from:

  • Albury Wodonga Ethnic Community Council
  • Albury and Wodonga city councils
  • Emergency Management Victoria
  • Bureau of Meteorology
  • Migration Council Australia
  • Good Things Foundation
  • National Emergency Management Agency

/Public Release. View in full here.