GPS technology used to understand the performance of human teams

New research published in the journal Scientific Reports led by scientists at Swansea University has used GPS devices to track the performance of teams of human foragers.

GPS foraging story - Andrew KingDr Andrew King of the University’s Department of BiosciencesCollege of Science, who led the research, normally studies the behaviour of shoals of fish, flocks of sheep, or troops of monkeys. But in this latest research he used GPS technology to better understand how teams of people work together to find food. 

Group foraging in humans has a deep evolutionary history and our ancestors searched for food sources in a patchy, uncertain environment on a daily basis. Dr King’s team didn’t have people search for berries, or hunt buffalo, though. Instead, people searched for coloured tokens in a ‘foraging arena’ and their movements were tracked by GPS attached to baseball caps. 

The extremely accurate GPS devices provided each person’s position every second, allowing the scientists to track every team members movements during the task. 

The scientists then looked at each person’s movement and examined how well teams of different sizes coordinated their motion. Coordinated motion in shoals, flocks and herds often allowed individuals to transfer information quickly and make faster and more accurate decisions. 

Co-author Dr Rowan Brown said “We found that small teams of just 4 people or big teams of 24 were not able to coordinate their behaviour as well as teams of 8 or 12. But this difference in coordination didn’t change how well teams did in the foraging task”.

The fact that even poorly coordinated teams did well was initially puzzling. However, Dr King thinks that this can be explained by people’s ability to respond to different types of information at the same time.

“People are likely to be watching one another’s actions to achieve coordination in their movements – which is difficult if there are too few or too many people. But people can also chat to one another about how well they are doing no matter how coordinated they are. The information people gain from talking to one another is crucial, as you might expect”.

The next stage of this research is to understand why some people contribute to the team more than others, and why some people take on leadership roles.

Co-author Dr Ines Fürtbauer, who studies individual differences in animals said: “These sorts of experiments offer exciting potential for future studies which could help us try and reverse engineer the ingredients for good teamwork”.

Picture: (left to right) Dr Ines Furtbauer, Dr Rowan Brown and Dr Andrew King from Swansea University.