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General interest items edited by Janice Flahiff

[News article] Walking, driving and riding in a winter wonderland

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Snow and icy conditions affect human decisions about transportation. These decisions can ripple through other infrastructure systems, causing widespread disruptions. Shown here are points of connectivity.

Credit: Paul M. Torrens and Cheng Fu, University of Maryland, College Park; Sabya Mishra, University of Memphis; Timothy Welch, Georgia Tech.

From the 5 February 2015 article at the National Science Foundation (NSF)

For Paul Torrens, wintry weather is less about sledding and more about testing out models of human behavior.

Torrens, a geographer at the University of Maryland, studies how snow and icy conditions affect human decisions about transportation. He also studies how these decisions ripple through other infrastructure systems.

“After moving to the Washington, D.C., area from Arizona,” Torrens said, “I saw firsthand how snow upsets even careful plans for getting kids to school and commuting to work.”

Common disruptions such as those associated with snow, while not always catastrophic, have real economic costs, and the costs add up.

“Critical infrastructure systems are the lifelines of society,” said Dennis Wenger, program director in NSF’s Engineering Directorate. “They are complex, highly interdependent processes and systems and are subject to disruption through their normal life cycle and as a result of the impact of natural and technological hazards.”

In real life, transportation is affected by moment-to-moment decisions by people, explained Torrens, who may adjust their transportation routines depending on their individual circumstances and activities.

Relying on big data from social media sources, Torrens is building a dynamic, near-real-time atlas and census of a population from which motifs of human and infrastructure behavior can be extracted as rules for agents’ behavior.

“Social media data is a treasure trove for information scientists, because not only do we have the message content, but the content is stamped with a location and a time,” Torrens said. “We can study how information propagates throughout social networks and correlate that with physical situations as they unfold.”

When snowstorms and other behavior-changing events happen in the physical world, online interactions change, too. During a snowfall on the morning of Jan. 6, 2015, Washington-area residents tweeted about traffic conditions (for example,#Alexandria residents – Van Dorn Street is awful @WTOPtraffic #vatraffic #snow #ice #dctraffic).

One school system tried to open on time despite the slick conditions. Soon local Twitter users began posting photographs of snow-covered streets, car crashes and links to television news reports with the quickly viral hash-tag #closeFCPS. Information about the resulting problems seemed to spread, bottom-up, via a viral tag, rather than via official school channels.

 

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February 9, 2015 - Posted by | Consumer Safety | , , , , , , , ,

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