How to Measure Panic in People

How to Measure Panic in People

By Dialogo
October 16, 2012

Behavioral and panic patterns shown by people during natural disasters or social conflicts are decisive in figuring out the final toll of human loss and material damages. During these critical situations, it is recommended to keep calm, as evidence showed in Japan when the tsunami battered the island in March 2011. To greater peace, less collateral damage to regret.

But in order to plan contingency actions in advance and minimize the possible damages caused by panic situations is it possible to predict these patterns of social behavior?

That is the question asked to Jaime Ortega, professor at the School of Physics and Mathematics and director of the Center for Mathematic Modeling (CMM), at the University of Chile. His response after submitting a computer program finished in Chile to the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) in Miami, Florida on September 24 was “Yes, it is”.

It all began in August 2011, when representatives of the SOUTHCOM’s Science, Technology, and Experimentation Division collaborated with the US Army Research, Engineering, and Development Command to ask Chile’s CMM whether they considered it possible to determine collective behavioral patterns during natural disasters, pandemics, and other emergencies, so as to mitigate damages generated by people’s panic,” said Professor Ortega.

To answer the question, Ortega convened a team of CMM researchers, with Chilean physicians, sociologists, and journalists. In a mathematical model, they grouped together a series of social behaviors from people during a given past crisis, so as to obtain sufficient data that is historically verifiable. They chose the H1N1 flu pandemic that affected Chile in 2009, because there is plenty of documentation on it.

The researchers obtained all possible data recorded on this scourge in hospitals, the Ministry of Education, the Police, mass media, etc. Once the date in which the first pandemic death took place was identified, the professionals were able to analyze the impact of the news transmitted by newspapers and television on that day. This way, they were able to measure how many children stopped attending school, how many people visited emergency services, plus the characteristics of traffic on the streets due to the event. “We tried to understand people’s feelings and fear to find ways to suppress their panic,” indicated Ortega.

In addition, they used information provided by the phone system “Chile Salud Responde,” [Chile Health Responds] which people call when feeling under the weather. Then, it was possible to observe a considerable increase in phone calls during the epidemic, and compare these calls with those made by people that went to the hospitals, and who were really sick. This kind of information was useful to measure human behavior.

“This helped us develop a computer program to calibrate our mathematical equations with the data collected, and then obtain similar results to those documented in archives from various departments of government, of which the press talked about in 2009. All our calculations matched historical data. Further, this program has open and transferable codes, so it is possible to feed it with different types of information, so that it can be adapted to virtually any circumstance,” explained the professor, smiling.

This project was developed with the futuristic vision of Juan Hurtado, Science and Technology Advisor at SOUTHCOM, who stated that “we must recognize the great number of top-notch, excellent scientists that hemispheric partner nations have. When we saw the work done by the CMM and we talked with Professor Ortega, we realized that they were ideal for developing the project.”

Among other projects, SOUTHCOM’s Science, Technology, and Experimentation Division conducted research to evaluate radars capable of penetrating jungle canopies; fielded the All-Partners Access Network (APAN), that allows partner nations to connect and collaborate, and share information in real time; the investigation of military utility of nano satellites, manufactured at a very low cost; and the development of portable modular systems, called PEAK, which are capable of providing drinking water, situational awareness, communications exchange, and energy generation exclusively through solar energy, all tools that are crucial in case of natural disasters and other emergencies.

“We hope that this tool to detect social behavioral patterns can eventually provide value to our Partners, by means of information exchange networks such as APAN, to mitigate indirect damages caused by people’s panic during these scenarios,” Hurtado concluded.