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Characterizing the Reaction of the Population of a Mega-city to a Nuclear WMD

Project Overview

Working Plan

Research Outcomes

Research Team

Related Publications

MASON Program


Mason’s Center for Social Complexity has embarked on a project entitled “A Framework for Modeling the Population’s Response to a Nuclear WMD Event.” WMD is the acronym for “weapon of mass destruction,” and the “population” in this context is that of a large urban population of a mega-city such as New York City. The grant, funded by DTRA (Defense Threat Response Agency), will use agent-based modeling to project likely behavior of a large population in the days immediately following a nuclear WMD attack.

The project is under the direction of William G. Kennedy (Principal Investigator/PI, Mason Center for Social Complexity; computational social scientist) and Andrew T. Crooks (Mason Center for Social Complexity, and Mason’s Department of Computational and Data Sciences, College of Science). Two graduate research assistants, Annetta Burger and Talha Oz, are the core of the team. The Center for Social Complexity, a unit in Mason’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, will provide facilities and administrative support in coordination with the Office of Sponsored Programs and College of Science.

The Wikipedia definition of a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) is “a nuclear, radiological, chemical, biological or other weapon that can kill and bring significant harm to a large number of humans or cause great damage to human-made structures (e.g., buildings), natural structures (e.g., mountains), or the biosphere.” There is data extant on what specific people have done in very real disaster scenarios in the past. As painful as each of those instances was, the human response information gathered from them is integral to the characterization of human response to disasters of even larger magnitude. The currently available weapons of mass destruction are known, the methods of their delivery are constructed or are at least constructible, and the breadth of their destruction is computable. Because these weapons have not yet been deployed, however, no data is available on how people are likely to respond to their use. To the degree we can anticipate those responses, we can do things that can mitigate the damage, such as more effectively maximizing emergency responder resources and behaviors or designing disaster response educational programs.

The goal of this research is to advance understanding of the behavioral and social effects of a nuclear weapon of mass destruction (WMD) event on a large-city population; in this case New York City will provide the large urban area under study. While the physical effects of such an event have been studied, the social effects — obviously more difficult to predict or to measure — are not well understood. Using agent-based modeling, the team will review, integrate, and exercise theories about how an affected population might react in the first 30 days following a WMD event. The model is not intended to address behavior beyond the immediate post-event period.

The DTRA Program Officer for this project will be Paul S. Tandy, PhD. Dr. Tandy is responsible for The Basic and Applied Research Thrust Area 2: Network Sciences, where the fundamental science of cognitive, information and networks results from the convergence of computer, information, mathematical, network, cognitive and social sciences. This research thrust expands our understanding of physical and social networks and advances knowledge of adversarial intent with respect to the acquisition, proliferation, and potential use of WMD. The methods in this DTRA program may include analytical, computational or numerical, or experimental means to integrate knowledge across disciplines and improve rapid processing of intelligence and dissemination of information.

The project, funded for $462,094, started in mid-2016 and will last three years with two additional optional years of funding.

The Mason Center for Social Complexity was founded in 2002 by Dr. Claudio Cioffi through an Initiative on Complexity and Computational Science from the Office of the Provost. Since its inception, funding for the Center has been received through highly competitive peer-reviewed grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA), and the Office of Naval Research (ONR), among others.

In this first year, we explored understanding a large population’s reaction to a nuclear WMD event in four major activities: (1) reviewing existing social theories of disasters, (2) collecting data and modeling the infrastructure of a mega-city and surrounding region, (3) generating synthetic population generation, and (4) developing an agent-based model of all the individuals in the region. We reviewed of social science theories and data on individual/group behavior during disasters. This work led to the publication of a case study and preparation of two review papers. Concerning the environment of a mega-city and surrounding area, we collected spatial, demographic, and workforce data for the selected mega-city of New York from several sources and devised methods and algorithms to make the data useful. The road data was preprocessed to achieve one connected network forming the transportation layer of the models. Using demographic data, we synthesized individuals, their households, and their social networks. Other datasets were utilized so that children attend nearby schools or daycare constrained with actual capacities and people are employed in workplaces located nearby matching workforce data. Finally, we began modeling individuals’ movement in three counties, two rural counties and one in the heart of New York City.

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