Why Atlanta Fell: A Mind's Eye Report From The Ground

Posted: Jan 30 2014, 10:57pm CST | by , Updated: Jan 30 2014, 11:01pm CST, in News

Why Atlanta Fell: A Mind's Eye Report From The Ground
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When the information comes
We’ll know what we’re made from
And the skyline rising
High-rise eyes see for you

Beck, The Information

Winter storm Leon roared through Atlanta this week causing more mayhem than Sherman on a bourbon bender. People in snowier parts of the country have been wondering how one storm, amounting to three or so inches of snow, could bring a city so large to its knees—to the point where the mayor and governor are engaged in a public street fight about who’s to blame. I happen to live in Atlanta and may be able to shed some light on issue.

Who’s really to blame? Well, everyone.

Thanks to a cognitive foible called the availability heuristic, we overestimate the chances of something happening, or not happening, based on what’s most readily available in memory. Since it’s been a few years since Atlanta had seen anything like Leon, most of the city was operating in a sort of brain fog about what could happen if things were worse than forecasted.

And things were significantly worse. The forecast showed Atlanta taking a glancing blow from Leon, a dusting of snow and dose of cold, but instead the city took a punch to the gut. Inches of wet snow turned to ice in short order, and within hours the roads were a skating rink.

When no one is prepared for a worse outcome than predicted, everyone reacts at once when the snow hits the fan. The “everyone” in this case includes the school districts that shut down halfway through the day, causing parents to flood the roadways to get their kids. At roughly the same time, employers were deciding that they should allow people to leave early to avoid an outcome that was already a foregone conclusion: gridlock.

If you’ve ever driven through Atlanta at rush hour (that’s anytime between 3 and 7pm), you know that it’s usually a tough commute. Add to that tens of thousands of parents frantically trying to reach their kids, thousands more employees trying to beat the rush, and a sheet of ice across the highways.

About those highways – many have asked why the city and state didn’t have emergency crews at the ready just in case things were worse than forecasted. I’m going to chalk that up to another cognitive bias I call siloing. Silo thinking occurs when groups don’t connect the information dots between each other. City officials don’t exchange information with state officials. Neither exchanges information with the school districts or Atlanta’s major employers, and so forth. By the time emergency vehicles were sent out to de-ice the roads, the situation was already bumper-to-bumper. Too late.

After everything falls apart, siloing turns into blaming. That’s why Kasim Reed, the mayor of Atlanta and Nathan Deal, the governor of Georgia, have been exchanging blows in national news. No one wants to admit that their organization was operating in an information silo before the catastrophe, even though all of them were. (Worth noting, the governor has since publicly apologized for unpreparedness. Mayor Reed has also said “mistakes were made.”)

The availability heuristic and siloing parts of this tragedy both hinged on forecasted information, which says a lot about our ever-increasing reliance on predictions. The Weather Channel—our go-to source for all things weather—is based, ironically, in Atlanta. We structure our days largely around what forecasters tell us is coming next (which is sort of a mainline feed into the availability heuristic), not around what could come next if those forecasts are wrong. Having said that, it should be noted that The Weather Channel advised of potentially dangerous conditions at 4 am Tuesday. Whether or not that was enough time for government officials to act is debatable, but I can tell you from firsthand experience that it’s too late to stem the tide of traffic.

Leon’s KO of Atlanta is proof positive that our reliance on predictions, saddled with our in-built biases can, and eventually will, lead to unpleasant outcomes. Instead of blaming, we’d be better served by learning. There’s a lesson in Leon for just about everyone, and it won’t be long before we’ll need to apply the takeaways.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at his website, The Daily Brain. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.

Source: Forbes

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