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Understanding complex networks

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity net­work sci­en­tists­David Lazer and Alessandro Vespig­nani have been awarded $1.1 mil­lion as part of a $1.8 mil­lion grant from the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion to ana­lyze the inter­de­pen­dence between com­plex net­works in nat­ural, social and tech­no­log­ical systems.

Under­standing how an issue may spread through the nation’s trans­porta­tion infra­struc­ture, for example, could shed light on mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies designed to keep people safe.

“Knowl­edge of these dynam­ical processes would allow us to antic­i­pate and pos­sibly min­i­mize sys­temic risk in a variety of con­texts that affect our daily life,” said Vespig­nani, the newly appointed Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of Physics, with appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences.

The results of the study, which includes Boston Uni­ver­sity physics pro­fessor Eugene Stanley, may also inform the design of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion devices, such as smart phones and social net­working sites, such as Face­book and Twitter.

“Our hope is that we can inform how to struc­ture our tech­no­log­ical sys­tems to better enable our social rela­tion­ships and make them more robust so we don’t have cat­a­strophic rever­ber­a­tions across net­works,” noted Lazer, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and com­puter sci­ence with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Science.

The research team may decide to explore the rela­tion­ship between nat­ural dis­as­ters and Face­book use, traffic and mobile phone use, or telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion pat­terns and employee camaraderie.

For example, a close analysis of traffic pat­terns and his­tor­ical trans­po­ra­tion data could lead to the design of a mobile phone-​​operated system that helps dri­vers nav­i­gate through con­gested roads, Lazer said. As he put it, “The system would inform dri­vers where the traffic is so they can use road net­works more efficiently.”

The study also includes an edu­ca­tional com­po­nent. The research team plans to design a museum exhibit on net­work sci­ence and col­lab­o­rate with stu­dents in the Boston Public Schools.

“We hope to inspire the next gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists at an early age,” Lazer said.

by Jason Kornwitz

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