Preparing for the worst

TRU professor develops simulator to predict crowd flow during terror attacks

TRU computer science prof. Andrew Park. (Wade Tomko/The Omega)

TRU computer science prof. Andrew Park. (Wade Tomko/The Omega)

With large scale terror attacks becoming commonplace in the modern world, governments and security forces are constantly trying to develop new ways to predict and mitigate the damage of these terrible acts.

Though TRU is far removed from the parts of the world where the threat of bombings and shootings are an everyday occurrence, that hasn’t stopped one professor from doing his part to try to reduce the damage done by these attacks.

Andrew Park is a Computer Science professor at TRU who has a unique interest. Despite his background, he has invested a lot of time into sociological studies, such as crowd behaviour and criminology.

“For my PhD, I met some SFU criminology professors and our topic was studying the fear of crime in the downtown Vancouver Eastside,” Park said. “I wanted to know how people behaved there, as it’s a high crime area and people might want to avoid certain places.”

Using video game technologies, Park and his colleagues were able to digitally render Vancouver’s downtown Eastside in 3D. To populate this digital world, Park allowed 60 participants to take a run through it while their data was monitored. The result: characters (referred to as agents) with very realistic and unique traits, ranging in age, personality, emergency training and fear of the environment.

After the completion of this project, Park was approached by TSAS, the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, who wanted him to join a team of professionals developing counterterrorism strategies.

The team, which comprised of professors from SFU and Trinity Western, as well as Vancouver Police Department officers, even included some TRU students working as research assistants.

Using the same technology that had been used to create the virtual version of Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, Park was able to simulate multiple hypothetical scenarios. These scenarios included re-creations of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings and the Westgate Mall attacks in Nairobi, Kenya of the same year.

Experimenting with placement of exits, security personnel and emergency responders, Park and his team worked to reduce the average response time in order to save as many lives as possible.

“When a terrorist attack happens we have to respond as quickly as possible in an organized manner,” Park said. “We want to be able to place security officers and first responders at strategic locations and see how we can help people escape or be rescued more easily, and as soon as possible.”

After running many tests, Park’s team had learned that where security personnel and first responders are in the event of a terrorist attack is crucial to reducing the number of lives lost. Yet they also found some other surprising results.

“The difference between different age groups and whether or not people have some drills or training was quite large,” said Park. “Of course young people are more able and can escape faster than older people, but training and drills also made a big difference as well.”

Though the simulator has came a long way, many tests are still needed to validate the system.
“Though it is definitely ready for use, we are still improving this simulation system. It’ll only get better with future technology,” Park said.

Park’s terror attack simulator isn’t the only virtual simulation he has been working on. Working alongside TRU World, Park has helped develop a virtual orientation using the same video game technology.

“The idea is that international students will see the website and be able to navigate this virtual campus, kind of like a video game,” said Park. Close to being finished, the simulator will give students the freedom to explore and interact with TRU’s campus when released.