Can technology help avoid stampedes?

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It seems the cruellest and most unnecessary of deaths – to be crushed in the midst of a crowd. But even in the 21st Century such deaths are still common, as a stampede at a recent Hindu festival in India, which killed about 115 people, proved all too sadly. Horror quickly turned to anger as the Indian media reported that better crowd management could have prevented the tragedy. But can technology also play a role in making sure that such disasters are not repeated?

At the Hajj pilgrimage, the world’s largest Islamic gathering, which takes place in October, the authorities now use live crowd analytics software, which can not only spot problems in the crowd but also claims to be able to predict where overcrowding is likely to happen. Live data feeds come into a large operations room where they are analysed by military personnel, the police and other crowd managers. The software provides accurate and real-time data on crowd numbers, densities, distributions and flows.

“Crowds can be dangerous places. Whether triggered by factions within the crowd, by natural disasters or misguided crowd managers, there is a long history of crushes, stampedes and failed evacuations,” said Fiona Strens who co-founded CrowdVision, the firm behind the software. “It spots patterns of crowd behaviour that indicate potential danger such as high densities, pressure, turbulence, stop-and-go waves and other anomalies.“

As large-scale events go the Hajj is one of the biggest and it has a pretty bad track record; over the years thousands of lives have been lost. One of the worst incidents occurred in 2006 when a stampede on the last day of the pilgrimage killed at least 346 pilgrims and injured another 200. As part of his PhD research, CrowdVision co-founder Dr Anders Johansson analysed the CCTV images of the pilgrims before and during the crush in 2006, and realised that there were patterns of behaviours that, spotted early enough, could have prevented it. In 2007, his system was installed in Mecca and it has been monitoring the pilgrimage every year since.

The Saudi authorities believe such technology helps save lives. While the company doesn’t like to tempt fate, since its involvement, no fatalities have occurred. That isn’t entirely down to the technology though, admits Ms Strens. “In recent years the Mecca authorities have invested in better infrastructure, planning and technology to assure pilgrim safety but we play a very important role providing the real-time data and insights needed to inform operational decision-making,” she said.

For their part, the Saudi authorities are pleased to have such a technology partner. “The live crowd analysis greatly improves safety of pilgrims” said Dr Salim al Bosta, crowd management expert, at the ministry of municipal and rural affairs.

This is an extract from an article first published by BBC, and available here

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