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Biomimicry for Disaster Response

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has embarked on a fascinating research project to study insect group behavior and virus propagation as models for civil engineering collaboration networks in a post-disaster environment. This is biomimicry used not for design, but for understanding human use of information.

The research team, which includes biological, computer and social scientists and civil engineers, will apply their natural-world findings to three major areas: collaboration among organizations involved in disaster-relief efforts; the use of information technology to support preparedness, response and recovery tasks; and the emerging role of civil engineers as key first responders to disasters. [...]

[Noshir] Contractor[, professor of speech communication and of psychology,] said that one of the challenges being explored in the new research is “how first responders have to rely on local information and often work in the absence of global information.”

“An emergency-response strategy based on complete global information being made available instantly to all responders is fundamentally flawed,” Contractor said. “Instead, we need to develop a strategy that leverages cutting-edge research in information technology to enable the rapid assembly and deployment of ad hoc, flexible networks of responders who act largely on the basis of local information. Such a strategy would be enormously helpful in helping us cope with disasters such as the recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean.”

One of the ways these researchers hope to advance understanding of the dynamics of communication and knowledge networks among first responders is by “ ‘learning’ basic principles on how bees and ants are able to effectively self-organize based on local information,” said Contractor, who directs the Science of Networks in Communities group at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at Illinois.

According to Illinois’ Gupta, the ad hoc communication networks the researchers eventually develop to spread critical information among first responders also will “mimic the epidemiological spread of viruses and rumors.”

“Epidemiological algorithms can be used in large groups of participants to spread, collect and search for information,” Gupta said, adding that “the resulting software systems can scale to networks with hundreds or thousands of first responders, as well as withstand unresponsive participants and poor communication channels.

“This behavior is very similar to how rumors or fads spread in society and viruses spread in populations, both rather reliably and rapidly.”

Understanding insects’ collaborative behavior also will help in the development of more efficient and effective ways of coordinating knowledge.

Cool stuff. It's not without precedence, of course: ant collective behavior has been used as a model for software, and the viral analogy for information flows is a touchstone of memetics. (The people looking at ants as models should be careful to avoid "circular mills!") But the UIUC people seem to be onto something important here. We know that self-organized groups using peer-to-peer communication can be critical in the early phases of disaster response, and the December tsunami has spurred efforts to use inexpensive, distributed communication tools as a way of alerting people to danger. Such plans carry with them their own design risks, and the more we know about making information propagation useful, the better.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Biomimicry for Disaster Response:

» hot stuff: insect behavior as model for post-disaster engineering nets from W. David Stephenson blogs on homeland security et al.
Boy -- this one really hits my sweet spot -- combining elements of biomimicry, technology, and (by extension, since a lot of the same procedures used for recovery from natural disaster would be applicable) to homeland security. [Read More]

» Swarming, Epidemiology, and Disaster Relief from Smart Mobs
Jamais Cascio reports that the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is researching insect behavior and virus propagation as models for civil engineering collaboration networks after disasters. (Via W. David Stephenson) The research team, which incl... [Read More]

Comments (2)

Sega Songha:

I thought this site was similar to the ideas in this article. The idea of the network is the same. It is good to hear these ideas come from more than just tree huggers.
Efficiency seems to be something nature and geeks are driven towards. It is beautiful, though. I hope bureaucrats wont gum up the works.

I'd love to see open research: research that's done openly, from start to finish, with all its "hmm", "aha", "damn it!", etc. Maybe even thinking out loud and asking for help.


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