The social side of Sandy

Marvin Nauman/FEMA photo

Marvin Nauman/​FEMA photo

When dis­aster strikes, we rely on our social net­works for sup­port. During hur­ri­cane Sandy, neigh­bors helped neigh­bors by sharing elec­trical power with those who’d lost it or removing tree limbs from each other’s rooftops. In many cases, the help we get during emer­gen­cies comes from whomever hap­pens to be nearby, but more and more our cell phones—if they still work—connect us to more dis­tant resources.

North­eastern pro­fessor David Lazer hopes to under­stand how people behave during dis­as­ters through an app he and his team devel­oped for mobile phones, which archive much of that behavior in call and text logs.

The Sandy app is avail­able through the web­site Vol­un­teer Sci­ence, which Lazer and Drew Mar­golin, a post-​​doc in his lab, recently launched. It allows users like you and me to par­tic­i­pate in research in the form games and apps like the one for Sandy. They hope to even­tu­ally see a huge flow of people through the site, playing these sorts of games for fun. After all, the ques­tion of how people behaved during Sandy is just one of a lim­it­less number that researchers could ask using this approach.

But back to the Sandy app. Once down­loaded, it will ask vol­un­teers to answer ques­tions about their sit­u­a­tion during the storm, what resources they needed or pro­vided to others, and how they con­nected with those they did. It will then reach into the archives, choose ten random calls, and ask ques­tions like “How is this person related to you?” and “Did you get what you needed from this person?”

Post-​​disaster inter­viewing is stan­dard pro­tocol for emer­gency orga­ni­za­tions like the Red Cross, but these rely entirely on people’s mem­o­ries, which are often skewed during times of stress. The new app is “not meant to sub­sti­tute for other methods, it’s just adding a pow­erful com­ple­ment,” said Lazer.

We think of it as the 21st cen­tury improve­ment over the inter­view,” said Mar­golin, who is leading the project. The method will add valu­able data that inter­viewing alone cannot. For instance, people who had a flood of inbound calls during the storm may have been support-​​hubs without real­izing it.

Pre­vious research has looked at static call detail records, pro­vided by the phone com­pany, which includes things like the cell tower that was accessed and the number that was called. Those studies have revealed dis­tinc­tive pat­terns of behavior. For example, the number of calls between people 20 years apart in age increases during emer­gency sit­u­a­tions, sug­gesting more calls between par­ents and children.

But the problem is we can’t ask those people ques­tions about their con­text,” said Lazer. They can’t ask whether the older person someone called was in fact their parent. “In some ways it’s like one hand clap­ping. Here we’re trying to supply the con­text and make a little bit more noise.”

While the app will pro­vide invalu­able new infor­ma­tion for emer­gency relief efforts, it will also pro­vide an improve­ment over cur­rent net­work sci­ence research methods. “Trying to build a bridge between the obser­va­tional data, the mas­sive pas­sive data that’s being cre­ated about all of us every day and deeper soci­o­log­ical con­structs,” said Lazer. That’s the goal for the whole Vol­un­teer Sci­ence plat­form, he said.

Readers can par­tic­i­pate in the Sandy study and encourage New York and New Jersey area friends to do the same by vis­iting www​.vol​un​teer​science​.com. The app is cur­rently only avail­able for Android phones.