Emergencies in the digital age

Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

On April 15 I was walking my dog in Franklin Park, a big beau­tiful green space just at the edge of the city. At 3:32 pm my cousin sent me a text mes­sage: “You guys good?”

Yeah,” I responded. “Why? Are you?”

We’re in JP — there was a bomb @ the marathon”

Holy $h*!. Really?”

Yes — scary”

Are people hurt?”

Yes. Turn on NPR.”

I was one of less than about 20 per­cent of Bosto­nians who learned about the Boston Marathon bombing via cell phone, according to a new report from North­eastern pro­fessor David Lazer. Roughly half of us learned about it on the TV, according to the study, which also included con­tri­bu­tions from former North­eastern post-​​doctoral researcher Drew Mar­golin and vis­iting pro­fessor Ryan Kennedy.

After I heard the news, I opened the public radio app on my phone and lis­tened to the cov­erage as Ledley and I wan­dered around the woods. I texted my future hus­band and now-​​mother-​​in-​​law. More people texted me and I responded. I texted my sister and other cousins, family mem­bers, and friends to make sure they were all safe. This was appar­ently pretty stan­dard behavior around that time on April 15: It was the dom­i­nant means by which people inquired about their loved ones.

I was ner­vous and a little scared, but I felt safe buried in the forest, away from the crowds. In Mass­a­chu­setts, about 30 per­cent of the respon­dents in Lazer’s study also felt “some­what fright­ened.” A little more than 20 per­cent felt “very fright­ened.” The results were a bit dif­ferent when the ques­tion was posed to people out­side the state, where respon­dents were less angry, less sad, and less fright­ened in the after­math of the event. According to the report, the largest location-​​based gaps were in the level of fear. “Those within Mass­a­chu­setts felt a much stronger sense of danger than res­i­dents of other states,” write the authors.

By the time I made it back to my house, Face­book and Twitter were flooded with marathon-​​related posts. Rumors of other attacks around the city were bub­bling up. I learned via Twitter that there was another bomb at the JFK Library (from someone out­side of Mass­a­chu­setts) and then later, also via Twitter, I learned that wasn’t true. According to Lazer’s study, people in gen­eral were most likely to learn of these rumors via the tele­vi­sion. If you were located out­side of the state, you were less likely to ever learn they were false.

The study is part of an ongoing effort from Lazer’s lab to under­stand how people com­mu­ni­cate during and after emer­gen­cies. For more infor­ma­tion you can find the full report here and read some of Lazer’s com­men­tary on the find­ings here. These results came from a survey that his team issued between June 27 and July 5. They are also working on a project looking more deeply at our cell phone use specif­i­cally in the after­math of the event. If you would like to vol­un­teer for that study, visit Vol​un​teer​Science​.com. They will donate $3 to the One Fund for each person that participates.