(joint with Austin Wright, Mark Polyak)
Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Forthcoming), 2023
War is the cause of tremendous human suffering. To reduce such harm, governments have developed tools to alert civilians of imminent threats. Whether these systems are effective remains largely unknown. We study the introduction of an innovative smartphone application that notifies civilians of impending military operations developed in coordination with the Ukrainian government after the Russian invasion. We leverage quasi-experimental variation in the timing of more than 3,000 alerts to study civilian sheltering behavior, using high-frequency geolocation pings tied to 17 million mobile devices, 60% of the connected population in Ukraine. We find that, overall, civilians respond sharply to alerts, quickly seeking shelter. These rapid postalert changes in population movement attenuate over time, however, in a manner that cannot be explained by adaptive sheltering behavior or calibration to the signal quality of alerts. Responsiveness is weakest when civilians have been living under an extended state of emergency, consistent with the presence of an alert fatigue effect. Our results suggest that 35 to 45% of observed civilian casualties were avoided because of public responsiveness to the messaging system. Importantly, an additional 8 to 15% of civilian casualties observed during the later periods of the conflict could have been avoided with sustained public responsiveness to government alerts. We provide evidence that increasing civiliansÕ risk salience through targeted government messaging can increase responsiveness, suggesting a potential policy lever for sustaining public engagement during prolonged episodes of conflict.