US award for Dubliner's study of crowd behaviour


A 35-YEAR-OLD geographer from Dublin has received an award from the White House for groundbreaking work on the behaviour of crowds.

Paul Torrens, who teaches at Arizona State University, was among the recipients yesterday of the 2007 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers.

"Crowds are very difficult to study because it's quite difficult to collect data about them through the normal disciplines of academic inquiry, through surveys or observation. It's difficult to get information about their individual behaviour but it's particularly difficult to collect information about their collective behaviour, whether it's social behaviour or anti-social behaviour," Dr Torrens told The Irish Times.

"So what I have been doing is to build a simulation network that will serve as a synthetic laboratory, a kind of artificial environment I can go into and test theories and ideas, plans, strategies and policies in ways I wouldn't be able to test in the real world."

Dr Torrens, who was educated at Trinity College Dublin, Indiana University and University College London, has been based in the US since 2003. His work could be used to improve evacuation procedures in dense urban areas but also to spot early signs of anti-social behaviour in crowds to prevent riots.

"We'll be using it to test scenarios where the police can go into a crowd and recognise signals in the crowd that will help them to manage a crowd before it reaches its tipping point and tips over into collective violence," he said.

"Collective violence only happens in the absolute minority of these cases. People collect to protest every day in all sorts of different places and it's only in a fraction of cases that they will resort to violence."