Friday, July 31, 2009

Railroad Networks, Gang Networks, and Behavior

Yesterday, my husband attended his first meeting as a member of the Railroad Advisory Task Force in Amherst, which is looking at the rail lines in Western Massachusetts and how the area might take advantage of the US stimulus funds for related projects. The task force hopes to promote the idea of a Knowledge Web linked by rail, linking not only the communities in the Knowledge Corridor along the Connecticut River, but also the two land-grant university institutions, UMass Amherst and UConn. Accompanying this would be the rerouting of Amtrak's Vermont service and the potential of increased rail service from the Amherst area to New York City and, ideally, to Boston. Whatever improvements that would be necessary for passenger service would also impact freight in the area and would potentially reduce congestion on the highways, thus creating a combination of new opportunities along with the challenges.

In another real-life application of networks, my colleague in the Department of Sociology, Andrew Papachristos, just published a paper on Gang Networks and Murders in the July issue of the American Journal of Sociology. He says, “They kill because they live in sets of social networks in which violence shapes patterns of interaction. The gangs they join carry with them extra-individual sets of social relationships that restrain, filter and otherwise guide the choices and behaviors of gang members.” He concludes that gangs offer mutual protection with an amplified sense of constant threat. In his work he shows how the identification of certain gangs and their control can eliminate violence more than just a sweep through an area. Last year, we listened very intently to Professor Papachristos' presentation, Murder Markets: Group Dominance and the Social Contagion of Gang Homicide in Chicago, in our UMass Amherst INFORMS Seminar Series. Coincidentally, my next conference will be the Mathematical Programming conference in Chicago next month.

Finally, while we may study networks and their effects on society, regardless of how we attempt to design our networks to benefit society, we cannot prevent tragedies, due to senseless behavior. This Youtube Video of a potential grade crossing incident, while teenagers play beat the train in Amherst and narrowly escape, strongly illustrates this point. We hope that the Amtrak engineer of the train was not traumatized by the incident. The goal of Operation Lifesaver is to educate the public on the dangers around any railroad track. Coincidentally, Scott Merzbach, the Daily Hampshire Gazette reporter, who was at the Railroad Task Advisory meeting yesterday, also wrote the article in today's Daily Hampshire Gazette on the incident captured in the video.