Researchers find lifesaving impact of early warning systems in Ukraine

April 25, 2023
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Public safety alerts have saved countless lives in Ukraine—but lose effectiveness over time, according to new joint study

As many as 45% of casualties were prevented in the first few months of the war in Ukraine through heightened public responsiveness and the Ukrainian government’s communications strategy, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago and Ipsos.

The paper, which pairs an innovative methodology with the authors’ deep geopolitical expertise, is the first comprehensive analysis of the effectiveness of air raid alerts during the conflict. It appears in the April 25 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Co-authors David Van Dijcke of U-M, Austin Wright of the University of Chicago and Mark Polyak of Ipsos have provided substantial evidence that policymakers must sustain and adapt their messaging during prolonged conflicts in order to keep civilians safe.

The study provides valuable lessons not only for the Ukrainian government, but for another 39 countries that have developed similar early warning systems.

“What combination of messaging and technologies is likely to work in conflict conditions, and how to measure the effectiveness of these strategies, is key to avoiding civilian casualties, especially as geopolitical tensions continue to rise in the post-Soviet space,” said Polyak, president of analytics at Ipsos, North America.

Like many other nations around the world, Ukraine has developed a hybrid early warning air alert system that combines a smartphone application with conventional air sirens to urge citizens to take shelter during military operations. Yet large-scale population behavior in response to these warnings has not been well-examined until now.

Among the questions on researchers’ minds: How do citizens respond immediately after receiving an alert? Do their response times change as a conflict persists? How should government communications change to continue providing effective messaging as “alert fatigue” sets in?

The authors examined responses to the more than 3,000 civilian alerts through high-frequency geolocation pings tied to 17 million anonymized mobile devices, representing 60% of the connected population in Ukraine.

The analysis indicated public safety interventions play a crucial role in keeping noncombatants from harm—but it also revealed responsiveness tapers over time, which can be attributed to the gradual normalization of risk in wartime environments. The researchers concluded that between 8%-15% of casualties could have been avoided through heightened public response.

This “alert fatigue” presents a considerable challenge for public safety.

“Decreasing public responsiveness is a cause for concern, with potentially large losses tied to this shift as the war continues and we see a shift to increased utilization of unmanned aerial raids,” said Wright, assistant professor of public policy at the University of Chicago.

In order to minimize harm without hindering economic and social activity, the authors say policymakers must develop targeted messaging that heightens the public’s awareness of potential risks. Even small increases in responsiveness and urgency could play an outsized role in reducing the loss of life.

“One thing that struck me is how alert fatigue persists along various dimensions, even when we account for the different ways in which people may have adapted to the wartime situation,” said Van Dijcke, doctoral student in economics at U-M.

“At the same time, it does not seem like the fatigue is unavoidable. On days where the Ukrainian government sent out special announcements about the war, people responded much more strongly to the alerts, which underlines the important role the Ukrainian government has played in sustaining the public’s morale and hope during this tragic invasion.”