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ASU researchers model hurricane responses for more effective evacuations

August 24, 2023

Project simulates ways in which people might respond to emergency warnings

From the recent Maui fires to Hurricane Hilary, one thing is for certain: An evacuation plan is worth its weight in gold.

An Arizona State University research team has been modeling how people respond to hurricane and tropical storm warnings in an effort to create more effective evacuation messaging.

“In today’s digital world, there’s multiple channels of information (for) how people can stay out of harm’s way when a hurricane is approaching,” said Sean Bergin, an assistant research professor with the School of Complex Adaptive Systems in ASU’s College of Global Futures. “Evacuation isn’t just that you want people to leave. It’s about getting the right people to leave at the right time and making better informed decisions.”

Bergin, along with Michael Barton, a professor in the School of Complex Adaptive Systems and School of Human Evolution and Social Change, has been involved with Communicating Hazard Information in the Modern Environment, headquartered at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. The project uses a computational agent-based model simulation to explore the ways in which people might respond to hurricane and other emergency warnings.

ASU spoke to Bergin and Barton as the 2023 hurricane season approaches its midway point.

Editor's note: Answers have been combined and edited for length and clarity.

Man in brown windbreaker smiling

Sean Bergin

Question: Why are academics at ASU involved in hurricane modeling research?

Answer: This research is about how people respond to information about hurricanes — hurricane warnings for example — rather than how hurricanes, as physical systems, form. This is an example of complex interactions between social and natural systems, and ASU is one of the world's premier universities for social science research and of computer modeling of social systems.

Q: How did this project get started?

A: ASU became a partner with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado Boulder in a large NSF grant to study how people respond to hurricane warnings that are spread through multiple information channels, including digital and broadcast media, word of mouth and personal observation of the weather. ASU’s role in this project was to develop a computational agent-based model simulating this diverse information environment and the ways in which people might respond to warnings of different severity and timing. This model is a digital laboratory for testing alternative hurricane warning systems and their timing, the different configurations of the information network and different ways in which socioeconomic conditions can affect how well or how poorly people respond to emergency warnings. 

Q: How far along are you now, and how much do you have left?

A: (We) have developed and deployed a second-generation modeling environment. This environment is populated by computational agents that simulate the decisions and behaviors of individuals. The environment includes a variety of information providers, like a hurricane center, broadcast media (radio/television), digital media, local governments, an agent's neighbors and social network, and an agent's direct observation of weather conditions.

We can set this environment to match two areas of the U.S. most at risk of hurricanes — Florida and the Gulf Coast — and distribute agents geographically in each region according to the population densities.

Each agent has a unique risk sensitivity profile that determines how quickly and to what extent it decides to act in response to different warnings — ranging from doing nothing to evacuating. To set up a modeling experiment, we input to the model the sequence of warnings (at six-hour intervals) sent out by the National Hurricane Center and the hurricane path for past hurricanes.

We completed multiple series of experiments looking at the accuracy of hurricane forecasts, the effects of forecast errors introduced as they information is transmitted through the information network, the timing of evacuation orders, and the relative importance of forecasts, direct observation and evacuation orders in agent decision-making. We’ve published scientific papers and given professional presentations on these experiments. We’ve also begun new experiments on effects of setting agent risk profiles on the basis socioeconomic characteristics  — like age, wealth, children — drawn from census data instead of setting it randomly. We plan to publish these new analyses once they are complete.

Q: What do you hope to achieve with this work?

A: Predictions concerning a hurricane’s path and intensity have become increasingly more accurate over the past few decades. But the goal of this research isn’t to better predict a hurricane’s path; it is to find better ways to warn people about incoming hurricanes. We are hoping to better understand how people make decisions about weather hazards so that we can make recommendations about how to provide information.

Beyond this, the project has the potential to help us understand how people respond to warnings about other environmental hazards like severe land-based storms, floods and wildfires. As we've seen in this summer, these are becoming more frequent and more intense as a result of human-driven climate change. It is important that we are able to anticipate and plan for these events. It is equally important to be able to inform citizens in harm’s way effectively so that they can take appropriate action to prevent injury or death.

Man in mustache and beard smiling

Michael Barton

Q: What’s the biggest discovery you’ve made along the way?

A: Not everyone in the path of a storm has the same experience or resources. As part of this project’s exploration of people’s evacuation decisions, we incorporated census information into our modeled families to better model their behavior.

For instance, if your family doesn’t own a car, you are less likely to evacuate, or if your family has young children, you might be more likely to evacuate.

As we have tested these factors, we have found that including them may increase the accuracy of our model in some locations and could suggest that targeted hazard warnings will result in better decisions. As we continue to test these census-based factors we hope to better understand how to relay information and encourage better decisions.

Q: What is one of the most unexpected or challenging things about this research?

A: As we model the evacuation decisions of a state like Florida, there is not one right choice for all of the residents. Location plays an important role in making good decisions. If a storm were to hit the west coast of Florida, then people on the east coast do not need to evacuate, and if they were to evacuate, they would make it more difficult for others to evacuate. The timing of warning information, and especially evacuation orders, also plays an important role in evacuations. People can decide to evacuate too early and may evacuate unnecessarily. On the other hand, people can decide to evacuate too late and might be hit by a hurricane when they are leaving. So not only do people need to evaluate the hurricane’s severity, but they also need to make the right decision for their location at the right time.

Top photo courtesy iStock

Reporter , ASU News


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User experience reimagined

August 24, 2023

How ASU is leveraging technology to advance learning in higher ed

User experience (UX) is a framework focused on the human experience surrounding a user’s interaction with a technology, service or business. Although ubiquitous among tech industries, 10 years ago, UX in higher education and even across the technology industry was far less common than it is today.

One of the first universities to accelerate UX within its workforce, Arizona State University has created a team solely focused on removing student friction and creating a seamless student experience. It’s only in the past few years, in big part due to lessons learned during the pandemic, that universities are prioritizing accessible and digital education.

The UX team within EdPlus at ASU, the university’s central unit supporting digital teaching and learning, has applied the premium lens of UX design to higher education, contributing to ASU’s goal to remain No. 1 in innovation.

The advancement of UX  has better aligned the university to the needs of learners, providing a mechanism to ensure every experience created is centered around the unique needs of each student.

“I don’t think the investment of design has traditionally been embedded into the framework of universities,” said Amanda Gulley, chief of UX at EdPlus at ASU. “We created one of the first design systems in higher education when design systems in the tech industry were first being introduced to scale startups or big tech firms. Because the university leans on EdPlus as an incubating unit and experts in digital learning, it allowed ASU to accelerate this work and break barriers from traditional higher education technology structures.”

EdPlus has undergone a complete transformation in which UX is a core pillar across the ASU enterprise, focused on removing student barriers and creating the best possible student experience. 

Delivering premium experiences

Embodying the charter of Arizona State University means delivering a premium learning experience, and that requires understanding and empathizing with students to uncover their needs, motivations and fears that drive their behaviors and decisions.

EdPlus leads UX for the university across more than 30 technologies and digital experiences, including ASU Online and Dreamscape Learn, as well as ASU admission applications and partnerships, such as Starbucks College Achievement Plan, Uber and ASU, Study Hall and Air University.

EdPlus has designed multidisciplinary teams across the unit that leverage UX methodologies in every technology initiative, and it has become a learner-first, data-driven unit that prioritizes the need to center all solutions around understanding who is being served and how they can be supported. 

In 2022, these student experiences have reached more than 10 million users.

“How do we think about the learner first and what is the issue that we are trying to solve?” Gulley said. “We have a lot of assumptions about what we think the issue is or what our student population wants, but how do we bring in UX early and often to iterate and experiment against these hypotheses? We have to come to the right decision and then continue to build a framework around it.”

During the beginning stages of exploring innovative ways to leverage technology, Jonathan Carroll, senior director of marketing technology at ASU Enterprise Partners, led the applied data science and technology (ADSAT) team at EdPlus.

“The applied data science and technology team enhances user experiences through user-centric technology and data science,” Caroll said. “To effectively serve individuals, organizations must know and understand their users. To achieve this on a large scale, organizations need to responsibly leverage technology that can improve user experiences based on collected data. The team at ASU facilitates the collection, enrichment, AI development, integration and activation of data to provide scalable applications and insights for various groups and organizations.”

Caroll and Gulley wanted to find ways to measure behavior across the ASU digital ecosystem. Through their collaboration, a marketing technology (martech) group was developed, and it continues to enhance ASU’s approach to UX.

Now rebranded as Data Catalytics and Action Lab (DCAL), the groundbreaking collaboration between Carroll and Gulley continues to transform the meaning of student-centered experiences. 

“DCAL is supporting the entire ASU enterprise,” Gulley said. “They’ve been able to take analytics and stitch it with other student datasets in ways that I have not seen at any other institution. This kind of sophistication is also an outcome of our partnership with Google, who are thought leaders and experts in this space. It is 100% unique to academia and, to some degree, unique in the field of technology.”

The data produced by the EdPlus data science team has accelerated a more comprehensive understanding of the university’s current and future student population and their needs, enabling UX and technology teams to focus on personalizing the student experience and designing technological support mechanisms and interventions that feel tailored to every student.

Having a data-centered culture allows EdPlus and ASU to make better decisions focused on understanding who ASU is serving, evaluating current experiences, and predicting and testing where the university needs to go in the future.

“Embracing the constant evolution of data-driven design is crucial for higher education institutions,” Carroll said. “To stay ahead, it is essential to establish a clear and comprehensive data strategy that isn't tied to any specific technology platform. This strategy must be all-encompassing, including student information systems, learning management systems, customer relationship management systems, web, martech and more. By taking proactive measures early on, institutions can benefit within an often unpredictable industry.”

Research-based experiences

Composed of various squads, EdPlus uses a variety of robust data-informed approaches to inform how ASU understands and engages with learners. Researchers, designers, engineers, data scientists, product, marketing, UX writers and operational teams, including more than 40 students and fellows, work together to create insights and testing frameworks to launch technologies across a multitude of interdisciplinary projects. 

Whether on websites, across platforms or through extended reality, UX enhances every learner interaction by connecting with audiences and eliminating points of friction. That call to innovate has resulted in new ways of engaging prospective students, new programs enhancing student learning and, ultimately, new paradigms for UX in higher education.

But EdPlus doesn’t stop there.

Leveraging UX requires delving into the student experience — exploring why a student is not thriving and focusing on mechanisms to improve the personal and educational barriers preventing them from succeeding.

Applying UX research practices allows the team to discover who they serve and how to best support them. It’s understanding the audience in order to design paths that not only guide students where they intend to go but also where they need to go.

“What makes us unique is a few things,” Gulley said. “One of them being we have a very robust approach to how we understand the student experience, and that is a data-informed approach, leveraging mixed methods.”

In 2022, the UX research team interviewed, surveyed or user-tested more than 3,300 prospective and current students to help guide future decisions around the student experience.

“We’re thinking not just how students engage with our content and the tools we create, but understanding their mental models and decisions that lead to personalized, omnichannel support mechanisms, uncovering new barriers we can solve for what we didn’t know before,” Gulley said.

Diving into those big UX questions begins with identifying the students. Today, more than ever, the snapshot of the typical college student defies description. With ASU’s large and diverse student population, providing a unique and personalized student experience is essential.

For Madison Delaney, lead UX researcher at EdPlus, it boiled down to establishing the core types of prospective learners ASU is trying to reach — an effort among UX research students and product managers to create a handful of “personas,” or profiles, encapsulating the most common characteristics among learners.

Identifying these personas through a UX lens meant including high-level demographics, like an age range and location, whether they have dependents, and what types of stressors might exist in their life outside of school. 

“That's really the goal of this persona work,” Delaney said. “It’s getting at the core of who the learners and students are, who we're talking to and who we're creating these digital experiences for.”

The persona of a community college transfer student has different motivations, concerns and responsibilities from the persona of a full-time professional returning to college after 20 or 30 years in the workforce. Yet both personas attend ASU, and they’re not the only ones. 

Beyond the innovation and prestige of the university, creating experiences that speak directly to learners — and meet them where they are — is the goal.

The focus is on each student, their story and their success.

“It’s not just ‘ASU is great and you should come to us,’ but ‘Here’s how ASU is going to help you achieve your goals,’” Delaney said. “We want to show every learner what we have available to them and how we’re going to help them succeed regardless of their personal journey.”

UX design has allowed ASU to deliver tomorrow’s higher ed today.

Understanding the deep problems each technology is trying to solve and bringing in the student voice and human psychology principles into the design of the solution will elevate how universities serve students and advance success for all.

“UX may have started six years ago as a team, but it’s now a culture and a way of thinking,” Gulley said. “The thread of UX is in every role across the organization (and) advocates for those we serve. It is deeply connected to our charter. It’s no longer the responsibility of some, but embedded into the fabric of what makes ASU and ASU Online a differentiated experience from any other university.”

Margot LaNoue contributed to this article.

Meenah Rincon

Public Relations Manager , ASU Online