Understanding complex networks

Network scientists David Lazer and Alessandro Vespignani may decide to explore the relationship between natural disasters and Facebook use. Photo illustration by Christopher Huang.

Northeastern University network scientists David Lazer and Alessandro Vespignani have been awarded $1.1 million as part of a $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to analyze the interdependence between complex networks in natural, social and technological systems.

Understanding how an issue may spread through the nation’s transportation infrastructure, for example, could shed light on mitigation strategies designed to keep people safe.

“Knowledge of these dynamical processes would allow us to anticipate and possibly minimize systemic risk in a variety of contexts that affect our daily life,” said Vespignani, the newly appointed Sternberg Distinguished Professor of Physics, Computer Science and Health Sciences, with appointments in the College of Science, College of Computer and Information Science and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences.

The results of the study, which includes Boston University physics professor Eugene Stanley, may also inform the design of telecommunication devices, such as smart phones and social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.

“Our hope is that we can inform how to structure our technological systems to better enable our social relationships and make them more robust so we don’t have catastrophic reverberations across networks,” noted Lazer, an associate professor of political science and computer science with joint appointments in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and the College of Computer and Information Science.

The research team may decide to explore the relationship between natural disasters and Facebook use, traffic and mobile phone use, or telecommunication patterns and employee camaraderie.

For example, a close analysis of traffic patterns and historical transporation data could lead to the design of a mobile phone-operated system that helps drivers navigate through congested roads, Lazer said. As he put it, “The system would inform drivers where the traffic is so they can use road networks more efficiently.”

The study also includes an educational component. The research team plans to design a museum exhibit on network science and collaborate with students in the Boston Public Schools.

“We hope to inspire the next generation of scientists at an early age,” Lazer said.