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More than 700 pilgrims killed in Saudi Hajj stampede, how large is Technology’s role

Two giant waves of Muslim pilgrims collided at an intersection on 24th Sep 2015 near a holy site in Saudi Arabia, and more than 717 people were crushed and trampled to death in the worst disaster at the hajj in a quarter-century. Arabia’s civil defence directorate said, at least 863 other pilgrims were injured in the stampede, which took place in Mina, on the outskirts of the holy city of Mecca.

Hundreds of people all over the world are killed every year due to stampedes during religious ceremonies, New Year and other celebrations, football matches, fire and other accidents.

The stampedes are expected to increase in future as cities around the world are get more and more overcrowded. By 2050 the UN expects the world’s population to top nine billion, with nearly 70% of them living in towns. And people are spending more time in crowds. Large-scale music and sporting events are commonplace, as are big screens that beam events to public places to allow those outside of venues to watch the action. Spontaneous street protests are also on the rise, thanks to the proliferation of social media and smartphones.


Technology role

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Prince Mohamed bin Nayef, ordered a probe into how the tragedy had occured. Saudi authorities began an investigation, said Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, adding that initial reports showed two crowds coming from opposing directions converged at an intersection in Mina, on the outskirts of Mecca, when the pushing and shoving started. “Unfortunately, these incidents happen in a moment,” al-Turki said at a news conference.

Over the years, the Saudi government has expanded Mecca’s Grand Mosque that houses Islam’s most sacred site, the cube-shaped Kaaba. The government also uses sophisticated face-counting technology installed at a multistory structure in Mina known as the Jamarat Bridge, near where the tragedy occurred. The wide ramps and technology are designed to ease the pressure of the crowds and prevent pilgrims from being trampled.

Technology that can monitor crowds is going to become increasingly important, thinks Ovum analyst Joe Dignan. “Understanding how people move through a city will help develop smart transport systems and keep people safe in times of danger whether natural or manmade,” he said.


Crowd Analytics Software at Hajj Pilgrimage

“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.

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. “It spots patterns of crowd behaviour that indicate potential danger such as high densities, pressure, turbulence, stop-and-go waves and other anomalies.”

In 2007, his system was installed in Mecca and it has been monitoring the pilgrimage every year since. This is the first time fatalities have taken place and that to at a huge scale. That suggests apart from technology better infrastructure, planning and management is utterly important to assure pilgrim safety.
The four survivors questioned how officials managing the flow of people could allow two big crowds going in different directions to intersect on two streets packed with pilgrims. “What happened was more than they were ready for,” Lotfy, 44, told The Associated Press.


New Crowd Dynamics Model to prevent Stampedes.

The earlier models considered individual people in a crowd as a bunch of charged particles, but simulations based on the distance between pedestrians have failed to fully replicate known crowd behaviors.

Ioannis Karamouzas of the University of Minnesota and his colleagues analyzed video footage of crowds in both an outdoor campus and an indoor bottleneck setting, have developed a reliable model for crowd dynamics. It is based on the simple mathematical law for the “repulsive force” between two pedestrians—similar to the force law between electrons but based on their time-to-collision, rather than their separation distance.

The study team found that humans do not act like charged particles since they can foresee collisions, and this is crucial to outlining crowd interactions. They used this law to simulate realistic crowds in a range of urban settings.

The researchers hope their crowd model can be used to foresee potential dangers in sporting events and festivals in order to avoid stampedes. Their simulations might also be used to test the crowd safety of new buildings well before any construction takes place.


NDMA study on guidelines to avoid stampede, human casualties

A study commissioned by the NDMA on crowd management at places of mass gathering has suggested generic safety, security and fire guidelines to avoid stampede and human casualties.

The study, conducted by Indian Institute of Management- Ahmedabad (IIMA), suggested various solutions for managing crowds in mass gatherings including deployment of snake line approach, discourage general admission, have alternative routes for releasing excessive crowd pressure and formulate plans to take care of VIP visitors.

It said the authorities should not hesitate to refuse entry to VIPs if assessment indicates that it will add to safety concerns and ensure emergency exits are not barricaded, blocked or otherwise inaccessible.

The study said suggested that generators, distribution boxes, circuit breakers should be kept in isolated place away from the mischievous crowd elements, and there should be adequate fencing and security, if required and electrical appliances should have protection from the weather too.

There should be safe and clearly labelled storage of fuel (e.g. diesel to be used by generators) and attempts should be made to minimise tripping hazards (electrical cables, wires) coming in the way of crowd movements and ensure that these are covered and there is sufficient number of fire extinguishers at critical control points.

The study said security agencies play very important role in crowd management and have to interact with various other stake holders before finalising plans.


Survival Tips for individuals

Paul Wertheimer is one of the world’s experts on crowd control says, “A stampede is when people or animals are fleeing something of perceived danger. They’re running from something that scares them. This was a crowd craze… a movement of people towards something of perceived value, like getting into the place.”

Paul Wertheimer says you should take a moment to make a mental note of all the exits in a venue as soon as you arrive. The natural urge is to use the same entry when you exit, not because it’s safer, but it’s familiar. Paul says there may be an alternative exit being used by fewer people that will get you out more quickly, very handy if you already know where it is.

Paul Wertheimer provides following survival tips:
• Stay on your feet.
• Conserve energy – don’t push against the crowd and don’t yell or scream.
• Use sign language to communicate with those around you (point, wave, even use your eyes).
• Keep your hands up by your chest, like a boxer – it gives you movement and protects your chest.
• If you’re in danger ask people to crowd surf you out.
• If someone extends their hand for help, grab hold to keep them up. – Paul says in his experience crowds tend NOT to panic, they tend to be heroic and compassionate.

About Rajesh Uppal

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