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.’