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Crowd science: The science behind large events

Runners head to the Arch during the Hartford Marathon in downtown Hartford, Connecticut, on Oct. 9, 2021.
Steve McLaughlin
Hartford Marathon Foundation
Runners head to the Arch during the Hartford Marathon in downtown Hartford, Connecticut on October 9, 2021.

As vaccination rates increase and it becomes safer to gather again, large-scale events are slowly returning to our lives. Even before the pandemic, they always required careful planning. Not only permits and ticket sales, but also a fundamental understanding of how people behave in a crowd. Behind many of those big events is a crowd scientist.

Marcel Altenburg, a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom, is one of the world’s leading crowd scientists. This year, the Hartford Marathon Foundation hired him to advise on its flagship race.

If you haven’t heard of crowd science, you’re not alone. It’s such a niche field of academia, there isn’t even a Wikipedia page for it. But it sits at the intersection of data science, physics, psychology and risk analysis. And it’s a new field — the professors who taught Altenburg basically invented it. In fact, Manchester Metropolitan University is referred to by those in the field as “the Hollywood of crowd science.”

Large events have always carried safety risks. Anything from a small fire to a shooting can create a panic, which can become a stampede, which can have serious consequences. And every year, people die at events around the globe.

Just this past weekend, eight people were killed and scores injured when the crowd surged toward the stage at the Astroworld music festival in Houston.

So crowd scientists run through sometimes hundreds of scenarios to predict every possible outcome and make sure organizers are familiar with the risks and have safety plans.

And these days, crowd scientists have to pay special attention to social distancing. There was always a distance between people deemed “safe,” but this used to be a relatively simple matter of physics. Now, though, Altenburg says they have to focus more on people’s psychological comfort.

“Before, you could have put 100 people into a massive empty space. And you would say, ‘Stand so that you feel comfortable.’ And they would normally stand with 2.4 feet next to each other. That now changed to 2.7 feet.”

Those few inches make a huge difference when you compound that by thousands of people.

Josh Miller, vice president of the Hartford Marathon Foundation, said that was one change marathon organizers had to consider. They also reduced the number of runners by about30% — from the usual 10,000 down to a cap of 7,000. Runners started in waves and organizers had to predict specific chokepoints where runners might not be able to maintain social distancing. Miller said crowd science will certainly help them in the future.

“The science allows for us to look at the available physical width of a roadway and the numbers of people we can put in that space at a certain time. We can kind of extrapolate that ourselves to help us with any new decisions we might need to make.”

Event planners aren’t the only ones benefiting from crowd science these days. Another relatively new aspect of Altenburg’s work has been to advise on writing laws. He says that the British national government called in members of his team with public health experts to advise on their regulations about social distancing.

This field is growing. There are online students around the globe.

“We did online classes before it was cool,” said Altenburg. He has seen growing demand for his expertise now that it’s becoming safe to gather again. And he hopes that as the world gets more crowded, crowd science will continue to help keep us safe.

Updated: November 8, 2021 at 6:45 AM EST
This story has been updated. It was originally reported and published before the tragic events at the Astroworld music festival.

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