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Insects, viruses could hold
key for better human teamwork in disasters
Lynn, Humanities Editor
photo to enlarge
by Kwame Ross
Contractor, left, and Feniosky Pena-Mora look
to nature – specifically, to ants, bees and
viruses – for ways to improve human collaboration
during disaster relief efforts.
Ill. — In a new and novel study, scientists are looking to nature
– specifically, to ants, bees and viruses – for ways to
improve human collaboration during disaster relief efforts.
At the center of the scientists’ sights are a sub-group of their
own species – specifically, civil engineers, who historically
have had a limited role in such efforts, especially those involving
critical physical infrastructures.
Supported by a five-year $2.37 million grant from the National Science
Foundation, and supplemented by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
the research team at Illinois is attempting to draw inspiration from
the collaboration patterns that honeybees and ants use, and the spread
patterns viruses typically take.
The ideas the researchers develop will “augment current collaboration
among first responders, including civil engineers, to extreme events
involving critical physical infrastructures,” said Feniosky Pena-Mora,
the principal investigator of the study and a professor of civil
and environmental engineering at Illinois.
“The manner in which extreme events are addressed will influence
the future of our cities, as well as redefine the role of the civil
engineer,” Pena-Mora said.
In the epidemiology area of their work, the researchers are looking
at the spread of infectious diseases in human populations. In the entomology
area, they are looking at honeybees’ (Apis mellifera) collaborative
decision-making process when selecting a new hive or foraging, and at
ants’ (Solenopsis invicta) behavior when they are under threat.
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.
The study, “Information Technology-based Collaboration Framework
for Preparing Against, Responding to and Recovering from Disasters Involving
Critical Physical Infrastructures,” was funded as part of NSF’s
Information Technology Research Program for National Priorities
Co-principal investigators in the study, all from the U. of I., include
Noshir Contractor, professor of speech
communication and of psychology;
Indranil Gupta, professor of distributed systems in the department of computer science; Andrea Hollingshead,
professor of speech communication and of psychology; and Gene Robinson,
professor of entomology and of neuroscience.
Stuart Foltz, also a co-principal investigator, is a civil engineer
at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Construction Engineering
Research Laboratory in Champaign.
Other researchers include Liang Liu and Khaled El-Rayes from Illinois’
department of civil and environmental engineering, Lucio Soibelman from
Carnegie Mellon University and Brian Brauer from the U.
of I. Fire Service Institute.
At the core of the research team’s effort is the belief that civil
engineers should be key players in disaster relief operations involving
critical physical infrastructures – a fourth group of “first-responders,”
along with firefighters, police and medical personnel.
According to Pena-Mora: “The civil engineer’s role –
particularly the engineers and contractors who were involved with the
original design and construction of the critical physical infrastructure
– needs to be extended beyond infrastructure life-cycle management
and sustainability to also involve first response against disasters.
“These professionals are able to provide more accurate information
to support the decision-making process during the preparedness, response
and recovery phases of a disaster.”
For example, soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, inaccurate site
maps were distributed to the emergency response teams in Manhattan.
A week later, the World Trade Center design firm provided updated maps
with accurate subsurface locations.
Contractor 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
Understanding insects’ collaborative behavior also will help in
the development of more efficient and effective ways of coordinating
“Although human social systems are far more complex than insect
societies, where a reduced set of rules govern the behavior of each
insect for a given situation and the group’s behavior emerges
from such interactions, these models may be useful in understanding
the basic principles and best practices to be considered when developing
strategies that will coordinate knowledge sharing in chaotic social
settings where a small set of rules applied to local information drives
decision-making,” Hollingshead said.
Put another way, while individual honeybees process only “partial
and local information,” they are able, through interactions with
each other, to produce “a coherent response to a change in their
environment,” said Robinson, an expert on honeybees.
To date, no specific application has been found in computer science
or engineering domains using bee behavior as a source of analogy.
However, the researchers envision a smooth transition of concepts from
the collaborative honeybee behavior to solve complex tasks, like foraging,
into the disaster relief context, because of the modeling similarities
of both settings.
Although many research initiatives have used ants as a source of knowledge
in telecommunications and transportation, no specific application has
yet been found that applies models of ant behavior under threatening
situations for any given application in engineering. However, the way
ants “detect and propagate alarms and the interactions produced
in ant colonies can be used to model complex systems and cascading effects,”