The last week of trouble on the streets of British towns provides an interesting ‘field study’ of collective behaviour.  While the media and politicians seek to simplify the argument, understanding is only reached by examining the full complexity of the situation.  In seeking to remain as objective as possible, I’ll try to identify some diversity within these groups – starting with the ‘Rioters’:

The Destructors:  These are those intent on destruction.  Simply put, those who break the windows and light the fires.  They are highly influential on those around them, perhaps due to infectious bravado and dynamism.  They are likely to be within or supported by a close group of friends (e.g. gang structure) that encourages and respects this behaviour.  They may be motivated by an underlying resentment for (and perhaps a lack of fear of) the police or their community in general, although this may not be the focus of their actions.

The Followers:  These are those people bought onto the streets by sheer interest of what it happening in their neighbourhood.  On seeing the behaviour of those mentioned above (perhaps viewed as fun, or exciting), twinned with a lack of police intervention, they will join in also, although without the same vigour pursued by The Destructors.  They are likely to be more fearful of police action.

The Opportunists:  These are those who did not get involved with the wanton destruction, rather they were attracted by the potential of looted items.  They are united by a desire for material gain.  This may be twinned with an underlying sentiment that they have not received as much in the way of these items as they perceive to be ‘fair’.  This means that members of this group may be from any part of society, any person who feels that they deserve more. (Possible example: Laura Johnson)

The Observers:  They were those just watching and not getting involved.  Don’t underestimate the influence of hundreds of observers to make a riot look larger or more dangerous than it is.

In essence, it is too simple, too cack-handed to regard the ‘Rioters’ from one viewpoint.  Within the population of people out on the streets during those nights is a great deal of diversity.  This is important as it raises different questions as to how we deal with the underlying problems.  For example, why were these ‘Opportunists’ (as I’ve have coined them) drawn out onto the streets?  What can we do within our society, our society of superficiality and the culture of success attached to material wealth, to stop these people from acting this way again?

Furthermore, it is important the fully grasp the numbers of people we are talking about when it comes to addressing the scale of the issue.  This is hard to get a grasp on, and while the news reports can provide some sense of this, they are only drawn to the worst examples of behaviour.  However, I believe that, contrary to much opinion, there were only a small number of these so-called Destructors.  Rather, the behaviour of these people (within gangs) was highly influential on those around them.  Their own behaviour, and the resulting lack of action against them, encouraged the behaviour of those in other groups.

So when we did begin to see a crackdown by police, and arrests of hundreds of people, the rioting almost ceased straight away.  This would support the idea of a far greater number of ‘Followers’, those keen to be involved in the ‘fun’ but not those who will start it – in some respects, those afflicted by the ‘Madness of Crowds’ (see former blog post).  The Destructors, perhaps depleted in numbers and without the potential cover offered by the presence of many ‘Followers’, ‘Opportunists’ and ‘Observers’, simply stay at home.

The riots were a truly terrible event, but in seeking to understand what has happened we need to get a grasp of the full complexity of behaviour within the rioting populace.  We are not talking about ‘feral youth’ or ‘people gone wild’, the situation is more nuanced and requires a careful form of analysis and politics that, I fear, it won’t receive.

At some point this week I will try to apply the same analysis to the actions of the wider population during this period.

There is no doubt about the importance of social media in organising and directing crowd behaviour.  But there has been little discussion of how these models maintain certain social structures outside of periods of group activity.

As far as I can see, in the case of the London riots, young people are so intertwined with online social networking that they are never disconnected from the crowd.  The ideas that seem ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ during the actual riots – vis a vis hatred of the police, the desire to burn down and loot property – are maintained through these online connections.  When otherwise people may have had time to individually draw stock and reflect, there is always the online ‘crowd’ continuing to stoke the fire.

So, naturally then, people get together under the excitement that something might happen.  And when inevitably something does kick off, everyone gets involved.  What we then have is chaos and typical rioting behaviour.

‘The Madness of Crowds’ was a book written by Charles MacKay in 1841, describing the formation of crowd behaviours such as hysteria, economic bubbles and mass panic.  MacKay was among the first to begin to describe widespread phenomena that exist beyond the realm of individual rationality, phenomena that only exist through the interaction of crowds.  One particularly prescient quote may be as follows:

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

It appears to me that, in trying to understand and explain what has happened in London over the last few days, the press and politicians have forgotten this basic principle of crowd behaviour.

We all know that rioting and looting is a criminal activity (thanks for pointing that out Nick Clegg and Boris Johnson), but it is now taking place within an environment of acceptance and normality, an environment that has developed extremely quickly.  Within these social networks, existing across the intertwined ‘real’ and online worlds, there persists an ongoing idea, for whatever reason, that this behaviour should be taking place.  This is clearly dangerous and irrational, but it is an idea that remains.  Instead of calming the situation, I suspect that the threat of heavy policing and criminal prosecution is inflammatory, riling the crowd and encouraging them to go to further lengths.

In trying to understand these situations, people look to establish the drivers of this behaviour – the shooting that prompted the anger, or Twitter being used a platform for communication.  But this misses the point.  Rioting doesn’t need a cause, it is an irrational herding behaviour, where new norms are established quickly.

The ending of this behaviour must come from the base up.  Individuals – probably many of whom are normally decent and functioning members of society – must realise for themselves that what they are doing is wrong.

Unfortunately, this realisation, with the supporting infrastructure of online social networks maintaining this irrationality, may come later rather than sooner.

Spending a lot of time with code at the moment, and this doesn’t make for interesting blog posts…

However, I noticed something a while back that potential readers of this blog may have an explanation for.  In Google Maps ‘map view’, Regent’s Park is coloured grey.  Not green, as in Hyde Park or Hampstead Heath green, but grey as in plain old private housing grey.  And this never was previously the case, something has changed, Google has de-parked Regent’s Park.

Have a look here or I’ve taken a screen capture of the suspect area below (copyright Google, obvs):

Google Maps: The 'De-Parking' of Regent's Park

So what’s going on Google?  Why must you pay the beautiful Regent’s Park this disrespect?  Does it offer too much in the way of paved surfaces and tennis courts?  Surely it’s no worse than Hyde Park?

The Wikipedia article offers not much in the way of explanation, both being owned by the Queen (yes, the Queen, granted through ‘grace and favour’ for use by the public).  It is very much a park, too, according to the Ordinance Survey.  So what are the criteria that Google base their park definition on?  Or is this a glitch in the algorithm?  Answers on a postcard.  I’d be interested to hear of any ideas/conspiracy theories…

 

EDIT:  So I sent this post on to Ed Parsons from Google Maps via Twitter (@edparsons).  He replied saying that it seems to be an error and that he’ll get someone to look at it (full tweet here) – hurrah for Regent’s Park!

EDIT 2:  Regent’s Park isn’t alone it would seem.  According to one post of the Google message boards, there are other parks too, including Battersea and Victoria parks (credit to ‘Tom R London’.  I still wonder what sort of error would impact on only these few instances…

At the very broadest scope, Space Syntax can be said to investigate the relationship between movement and the configuration and connectivity of space.  In the past, while much favour has been found in the approach, critics have been distrustful of the axial line concept and of the representation of road segments as nodes in a network.  The construction of the network too, the process of drawing a network of longest lines of sight, has been seen to be unscientific.  Although I personally feel this to be a weak argument against Space Syntax in general, it’s acceptance into the wider research community may be hampered by this fact.

By way of a response to this argument, either intentionally or otherwise, there has been a movement towards segment-to-segment angularity (known as Angular Choice) as a predictor of movement.  The method is described by Turner in this paper, but in summary it is a calculation of betweenness on each network segment using the angular deviation between segments as the weight on which to calculate a shortest path.  The higher scoring segments, therefore, are those which are on a larger number of shortest angular paths passing over them.

One implication of this approach is that it a better fit for through-movement, that is an indicator of the routes we’re likely to use when moving from A to B.  This fits with what has been identified in other literature (particularly spatial cognition) where least angular change is identified as a driver of choice, notably in favour of pure metric distance.

So with a view to better understanding this relationship between the reality and angular choice, I wanted to compare the networks we find in the city and those indicated by this measure.  The first step was to draw out what traffic planners view as the most important roads on the network.  These are the roads identified in network as ‘Motorways’ and ‘A Roads’ (e.g. the ‘main’ roads), and as defined by the Department for Transport.  These were extracted and are as shown below:

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The top 2% of these measures immediately draw out many of the most used and most well-known roads in London.  The M25 is prominent, as is the North Circular and various corridor roads into the city.  At 5% there is more definition of some of the other key roads, and by 10% we have a network that is quite similar to the map of ‘main’ roads in London.

By way of a statistically breakdown, the top 2% of values of the Choice measure predicts 76.3% of all ‘Motorway’ segments and 28.4% of all ‘A Roads’.  By 10%, these values have risen to 87.4% and 75.4% of all segments, respectively.  It is therefore clear that there is a correlation between this network measure and the definitions applied to the network.

I realise that this is a somewhat unrefined piece of work but I’d welcome any comments and am happy to share more on my method and results for those who are interested.