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Emergencies in the digital age

Photo via Thinkstock.
Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

On April 15 I was walking my dog in Franklin Park, a big beautiful green space just at the edge of the city. At 3:32 pm my cousin sent me a text message: “You guys good?”

“Yeah,” I responded. “Why? Are you?”

“We’re in JP — there was a bomb @ the marathon”

“Holy $h*!. Really?”

“Yes — scary”

“Are people hurt?”

“Yes. Turn on NPR.”

I was one of less than about 20 percent of Bostonians who learned about the Boston Marathon bombing via cell phone, according to a new report from Northeastern professor David Lazer. Roughly half of us learned about it on the TV, according to the study, which also included contributions from former Northeastern post-doctoral researcher Drew Margolin and visiting professor Ryan Kennedy.

After I heard the news, I opened the public radio app on my phone and listened to the coverage as Ledley and I wandered around the woods. I texted my future husband and now-mother-in-law. More people texted me and I responded. I texted my sister and other cousins, family members, and friends to make sure they were all safe. This was apparently pretty standard behavior around that time on April 15: It was the dominant means by which people inquired about their loved ones.

I was nervous and a little scared, but I felt safe buried in the forest, away from the crowds. In Massachusetts, about 30 percent of the respondents in Lazer’s study also felt “somewhat frightened.” A little more than 20 percent felt “very frightened.” The results were a bit different when the question was posed to people outside the state, where respondents were less angry, less sad, and less frightened in the aftermath of the event. According to the report, the largest location-based gaps were in the level of fear. “Those within Massachusetts felt a much stronger sense of danger than residents of other states,” write the authors.

By the time I made it back to my house, Facebook and Twitter were flooded with marathon-related posts. Rumors of other attacks around the city were bubbling up. I learned via Twitter that there was another bomb at the JFK Library (from someone outside of Massachusetts) and then later, also via Twitter, I learned that wasn’t true. According to Lazer’s study, people in general were most likely to learn of these rumors via the television. If you were located outside of the state, you were less likely to ever learn they were false.

The study is part of an ongoing effort from Lazer’s lab to understand how people communicate during and after emergencies. For more information you can find the full report here and read some of Lazer’s commentary on the findings here. These results came from a survey that his team issued between June 27 and July 5. They are also working on a project looking more deeply at our cell phone use specifically in the aftermath of the event. If you would like to volunteer for that study, visit They will donate $3 to the One Fund for each person that participates.


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