Hurricane Sandy – Professor David Lazer Studies Cell Phone Use in Natural Disasters

My lab, with the support of the NSF, is launching a crowd-sourced study of Hurricane Sandy, so as to better understand how people react in emergencies. If you were affected by Hurricane Sandy and use an Android phone, I hope you will be willing to help out. This will take 10-15 minutes of your time. And if you weren’t, then I hope you can pass this post on to someone that was affected by Sandy.

How do people respond in large-scale emergency situations, like earthquakes and hurricanes? Understanding this should inform more effective responses to save lives and reduce hardships. Getting hard behavioral data in the moment and aftermath is difficult–because people have better things to do than to participate in a study. There is quite a bit of valuable research based on interviews after the fact, but such research necessarily relies on reconstructed memories of behavior.

There is another path–which is to study the data passively collected about people by the sociotechnical systems relied upon during emergencies. An outstanding example of this is the paper by Bagrow et al that examined behavior as captured by mobile phones during a set of emergencies. The power of this approach is that it offers hard behavioral data at massive scale. The shortcoming, however, is that it cannot contextualize (beyond geography) the data. Who, exactly, are people calling? Their spouses? Friends? What are they communicating–the need for help, reassurances that they are ok?

Here we are launching a study that sits between these two approaches. Essentially, we are asking people to load an app on their Android phones (iPhone users: sorry, but for now we could only afford to develop for one platform), and the app will ask about their situations during Hurricane Sandy, and look at their calling and texting behaviors, asking them about their relationships with those individuals. We will therefore get a precise record of behaviors before/during/after Hurricane Sandy, and contextualize within personalize circumstances and particular relationships.

My motivation here is scientific and personal. I think there is the possibility to do great science here that is potentially consequential for people’s lives, that can inform interventions that will help people. And, having grown up on Long Island, and spent the early part of my career Red Bank, New Jersey –near the shore (“shaw”)– I could see a lot of suffering occur among my friends and family in the aftermath, where there was very little I could do. But this study is at least something good that I can make out of a terrible thing.

We have posted more information about the study on our newly launched crowd-sourced science website, Volunteer Science, or you could go directly to the Google Play store.