You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Chaos Spills Online From Blasts at Boston Marathon

BY Nick Judd | Monday, April 15 2013

As of this writing, the most reliable reporting finds that 22 people are injured and two are dead in the wake of two blasts at the finish line of the Boston Marathon Monday afternoon.

Local Boston NBC affiliate WBLA is reporting that a third blast is believed to be a controlled explosion of a possible explosive device. Law enforcement officials at a press conference said a fire at the JFK Library may have been related.

More can be quantified in Monday's tragedy. Of 26,839 registered runners, the Boston Marathon's website logged 17,580 as having crossed the finish line as of perhaps 45 minutes after the explosions. Pictures — some of them graphic, all of them disturbing — belong in a geospatial context that physically relates the finish line in Copley Square to the beginning of the course and to the Marathon Sports store at or near the epicenter of the explosion. Any surveillance cameras at the Boston Police Department's disposal, too, belong on that map.

As usual, many of the initial reports are conflicting and unreliable. The Associated Press quotes a law enforcement official as saying that cellphone service is shut down in "the Boston area" to prevent any additional devices from being triggered that way. On Twitter, CNBC quotes Verizon officials as saying they are enhancing service in the Copley Square area to improve communication.

It may be that in the ensuing days and weeks this data helps describe Monday's events. Some combination of photos of faces, and algorithms that reduce faces to numbers, and numbers in the hands of clever people, might even imbue the explosions with motive and origin. But in the immediate aftermath, the signal is nearly indistinguishable from the noise.

A driving narrative of the past few months as been that anything that can be quantified can be predicted and controlled. In New York, housing and building inspection data is cross-referenced with other information to help the fire department determine which areas are most at risk. Analytics guide everything from which 311 calls are handled first in non-emergency situations to where police should be concentrated in the hope of preventing crime. Boston, too, is no stranger to this world, with an entire office — of New Urban Mechanics — devoted to taking this constant stream of data and using it to make sense of the city, to make a smarter and more responsive and interactive government.

This sense of security comes from the peculiar behavior that data exhibits whenever enough of it is agglomerated. At that point, data — and the phenomenon they describe ‐ form rare unusual extremes around a large predictable middle. Very rarely does a large enough set of data fail to be unsurprising.

I keep coming back to the Boston Marathon's runner tracker website and looking through the names found there. The last people to have their times logged crossed the finish line long after the outliers at the front of the pack. Being in the Boston Marathon at all should have been the only extraordinary phenomenon to happen to them on Monday.

Monday's explosions rippled across the news and social media with the efficiency and immediacy that we have, I think, come to expect in disaster. Rumors and bad behavior rose and are now being countered. Researchers will take those tweets and Facebook posts and codify them, and quantify them, and make inferences.

But sometimes things happen that are unpredictable and awful, and sometimes the news of the day is deeply unfortunate. And there's not an algorithm in the world that can quantify the sadness and hurt in Boston on Monday, there's no helpful number here, really, or statistical salve. There might be clues in the pileup of data created today that will be helpful tomorrow, or next week. For now, though, it seems social media's most useful aspect is how people use it to reconnect, and reassure, and in the ability of sharing to lessen grief.

Sam Roudman contributed reporting.