Saturday, 11 July 2009

Crowd behaviour - it’s people not technology, stupid!: research

Understanding Crowd Behaviour, research on crowd behaviour and management which the Civil Contingencies Secretariat commissioned Leeds University Business School to undertake, has just been published on the Cabinet Office UK Resilience website as part of the UK Civil Protection Guidance.

The 6 reports conclude that:

Focusing on technology instead of people is a key factor in events going wrong.. over-reliance on technical and IT solutions means we fail to learn the lessons from past disasters.”

These reports (key individuals involved: Rose Challenger, Professor Chris W. Clegg, Mark A. Robinson, Mark Leigh) are said to be the first to bring together sociological and psychological research on events and crowd behaviour to produce detailed guidelines for event organisers.

Also from the Leeds University press release (emphasis added) :

…the recent debacle at the opening of Heathrow’s Terminal Five as a prime example of a situation where faith in the power of new software and other technology meant that the importance of people – in this case, training and familiarisation in the new building and systems and involving those on the front line in decision making – was overlooked…

…Technical solutions will give you the engineering calculations to determine the ideal width of exits but you need to tie that in with understanding how people will behave and use those exits in given situations and how you will communicate with people in an emergency to ensure best use of them.

Believing new technology can be the answer to all problems means we are more likely to overlook basic lessons from past events. For example, what happened at the Kings Cross Underground fire is unsurprising given all that is known about human psychology and behaviour from existing research.”

There are other findings from the reports, of course; I just highlight the technology-related ones.

The Crowd Behaviour reports webpage includes:

  1. an overview of the crowd behaviours reports
  2. practical guidance / lessons on crowd events / management, emergencies / evacuation, and
  3. a review of software agent-based crowd simulation tools and thoughts on future research / development. The tools reviewed (based on public information and interviews with users etc – it’s a bit surprising the funding didn’t stretch to the researchers testing and using intelligent agent software themselves?):
    1. Legion Studio and Legion 3D
    2. Myriad II from Crowd Dynamics
    3. Mass Motion by Erin Morrow, Arup.

I think the general lesson from this research applies much more broadly than to crowd management, and just reflects common sense and what ought to be common knowledge.

The fastest, surest way to expensive disaster is to focus primarily on the technology, and ignore the people who have to develop, implement, use and maintain it.

It’s surprising that so many organisations, both governmental and private, can’t seem to take that point on board.

Technology should not be a religion or a panacea.

Sadly the technologically illiterate - which all too large group includes all too many politicians, for reasons all too often more political than anything else - seem to persist in touting it as such: see e.g. the major issues with Barts Hospital in London.

Update - on the resilience of e-communications networks, see also ENISA's EU wide analysis of National Policy and Regulatory environment on resilience of public communications networks of April 2009 - summary in their press release and this interview.

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