Scientists are conducting a massive computer simulation to work out how New York would respond to a nuclear attack in the heart of Manhattan.
The three-year, $450,000 project will simulate two nuclear detonations and their effects on up to 20 million virtual ‘agents’ each representing civilian, first responder or other official over the course of 30 days.
But first they need to input data – a lot of data, taken from disaster reports across the US – to figure out how individuals really react to catastrophe.
‘Computational social science is not experimental.’ Professor William Kennedy of Virginia’s George Mason University told The Atlantic. ‘We don’t terrorize people and see how they behave.’
As well as ‘big data’ statistics, the researchers are using individual testimonies from disaster survivors to govern their virtual victims’ reactions.
And that doesn’t necessarily mean movie-style panic and screaming in the streets, said Kennedy, who is heading up the project at the Center for Social Complexity along with Andrew Crooks.
‘We’ve found that people seem to be reasonably well behaved and do what they’ve been trained to, or are asked or told to do by local authorities,’ he said.
‘Reports from 9/11 show that people walked down many tens of flights of stairs, relatively quietly, sometimes carrying each other, to escape buildings.’
But there are other cases, he explained, where things haven’t gone so well – such as the response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Master of puppets: Prof, William Kennedy of George Mason University is one of those heading the study. Virtual ‘agents’ will react to the horrors and stresses in the simulation
‘There, we have reports that people already didn’t trust the government, and then with the isolation resulting from the flooding, they were actually shooting at people trying to help.’
Once their personalities have been set, the agents – up to 20 million, roughly the same population as New York state – will be dropped into a virtual New York map and left to react to events as they unfold.
The simulated bombs will have a strength of 10 kilotons. For comparison, the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were around 20 kilotons, and North Korea’s current missiles are in the 2-5 kiloton ranges.
As the simulation progresses it will look at their movements, their attempts to find water and food, and their communications with their friends and families.
‘Part of our modeling challenge is going to be figuring out if a parent would go through a contaminated area to retrieve a child at a daycare or school, putting themselves at risk in the process, because it’s important to them to physically be there with their children,’ Kennedy said.
‘Or do they realize that they’re isolated, that communications aren’t going to be available in the near term, and they only deal with their local folks who are now their family?’
Each agent is given a series of ‘decision trees’ – flee immediate danger or stay to help the injured, for example – informed by their desires and needs.
The agents will also be informed by where they are in the New York map – who and what is around them, and how far they are from the explosions and their loved ones.
The model will include subways, bus routes, bridges and roads. But it’s not as easy as cribbing off Google Maps, Kennedy says.
‘It’s frustrating us a little bit that the publicly available data is not very clean,’ he said. ‘We’ve found lots of road segments that aren’t connected.
‘We can’t just import somebody else’s map of New York and the surrounding areas and have our agents fleeing the area, so we’re spending some effort in the last several weeks trying to collect and clean up that data so that we can actually use it.’
They also have to calculate the number of floors in the various buildings so that they can model evacuations properly.
And a debate at the minute is whether each agent should take up a square meter of space when they move, and if buildings should have doorways built into them or if agents should be allowed to leave blocks through a building’s walls.
Williams says the simulation will initially model the movements of each agent in five-minute intervals, extending to 15-minute intervals as the 30-day window develops.
When it’s finished, it should take ‘a couple of days’ to run through from beginning to end, he says – and that’s with entire banks of computers to process the data.
But it could take up to five years, he said. Current funding runs to three years.