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The Irish Times

Crowd control: how Leaving Cert maths can save lives

October 14, 2017
Kevin O'Sullivan

Aoife Hunt uses maths to work out ways to evacuate buildings safely in emergencies

Aoife readily admits that part of being “a maths nerd” is doing past Leaving Cert maths exams. The UK-based mathematician and data scientist never had to sit for the real thing, but her strong Irish connections and a regard for the exam prompts her to have a go.

Her verdict? “I was always of the view that the standard of Leaving Cert maths is really very good.”

Comparing A-Level maths with Leaving Cert maths is not comparing like with like, she says, as there are differences in problem-solving and the need for rote learning, with the UK exam having more emphasis on the former – though with the standards being achieved by the Irish exam she would be more than pleased to take on an Irish data scientist with an A in honours maths.

Next week, as part of Maths Week 2017, she will be at the National Concert Hall in Dublin to address a large group of secondary students who will be taking the maths paper in coming years. She, however, wants to reveal some of the fun side of maths and to debunk notions that maths is “too hard”.

The event is part of a busy outreach part of her life – addressing science festivals, giving masterclasses and lecturing – which is about more than simply “giving back”. It’s about pointing ways forward: young people are excited about maths, she points out, but at second and third level they don’t see a clear career path.

“Too many people, especially at university level, don’t realise they can have a fulfilling career in maths, and drift into other careers such as finance.”

‍Aoife Hunt: Photograph: Phil Weedon

Role models

Part of her mission is to show young women options for them when they have few role models and drop out of maths at college so frequently. “A lot of that is to do with confidence,” she believes.

In addition, “it’s socially acceptable to say you are bad at maths in our society,” says Hunt. She doesn’t know why this is the case. In other countries, such as China, “it’s seen as a great thing to be wonderful at maths.”

She may be in town to show “how maths can save your life and make you millions”, but she admits an important part of her Irish visit will be to purchase a box of Tayto crisps for special delivery to her parents Liz and Paul Hunt, who live in Brighton. It’s all to do with her Irish roots.

She was born in Skibbereen, Co Cork, and moved to the UK when she was three, but retains an Irish passport.

Hunt works for Movement Strategies, a world-leading consultancy in London that specialises in analysing the movements of people. At work, she uses maths and statistics to figure out the patterns of large crowds at venues such as Wembley Stadium. The modelling applications they use – including probability – in evaluating “the chances of people behaving in certain ways” is straightforward, she says. To analyse crowd flow, “you don’t need much higher than Leaving Cert maths.”

Since finishing her PhD in evacuation modelling at the University of Greenwich, Hunt (who is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland in the US) has worked with researchers across the world to figure out how we can use maths to make buildings safer; notably in determining how a building might be evacuated normally and in emergencies.

‘Pedestrian dynamics’

This is done using various models and then factoring in human behaviour, what is known as “pedestrian dynamics”.

Her specialisation is microsimulation, which focuses on egress strategies for critical multi-storey buildings such as hospitals and particularly for people with reduced mobility.

The work is especially pertinent for emergencies such as a major fire or a terrorist incident. In these scenarios, “untenable conditions” is the ultimate threat, and the researchers look at options in maximising the time available to evacuate before that point is reached.

While crowd movement analysis is not part of obligatory building codes in the UK, it is increasingly being deployed. It is informing better design and safety – notwithstanding recent high-profile tragedies such the Grenfell tower fire.

Her work, she believes, shows what can be done with the everyday application of not-so-complex maths.

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