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Using Data to Combat Gun Violence

Experts explain how data from social network maps, acoustic sensors and research can be used in the fight against gun violence.

The statistics on gun violence in the U.S. are staggering: One in three people know someone who has been shot, and on average, 32 Americans are murdered with guns every day.

“What are the reasons, what are the environments, personal responsibilities, structural inequities that create this culture of behavior that allows somebody to shoot somebody else in the head,” said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu pointedly during at The Atlantic’s 2014 CityLab event in Los Angeles. 

Landrieu, who is mayor of a city ranked eighth highest in the country in 2013 for homicides, participated in a panel on Sept. 29, that queried how data, analytics and new technologies might combat America’s gun problem. He was joined by Jamira Burley, executive director of the Philadelphia Youth Commission; David Chipman, a senior vice president of the gunshot sensor company ShotSpotter Inc.; and Andy Papachristos, a researcher and sociologist from Yale University.

To illustrate data’s emergent role, Papachristos spotlighted his research on city criminal networks that analyzed 3,700-plus “high-risk” individuals. Based on five years of police record data, Papachristos said Chicago -- a city ranked highest for homicides at 413 deaths in 2013 -- could attribute 85 percent of gun deaths and injuries to less than 4 percent of the city’s entire population (the other 15 percent of injuries and deaths were related to domestic violence and stray bullet killings). Likewise, when mapped, the geographies of gun violence concentrated themselves in isolated pockets of the city -- small neighborhoods with predominantly black populations.

Papachristos said the crime statistics were no anomaly. From Boston to Stockton, Calif., research showed Chicago was representative of a larger trend in the U.S. It was similarly noted that disparities in obesity, education and poverty could easily be mapped to the same impoverished areas.

“Anyone who's looked at a crime map in any major city in this country has seen something like this, the really severe spatial concentration of violence in the same neighborhoods over long periods of time,” he said.

The new paradigm within his findings was how socially interconnected shooting victims are to one another, a behavior that Papachristos said could be leveraged by urbanists and social programs to confront violence. In collaboration with Nielsen Research, Papachristos hopes to develop an open source technology that will aid cities to map similar social networks.

And these data insights were not the only available.

Promoting ShotSpotter, a detection and police dispatch system that identifies gunshots through citywide acoustic sensors, Chipman said the service has confirmed what residents living in impoverished neighborhoods already know of gun violence:

“In certain areas of cities, it’s never reported,” Chipman said.

Demos of the ShotSpotter cloud platform were conducted in which police safely fired gunshots to compare traditional dispatching methods against the company’s acoustic gun shot detection and dispatch. In one such field test, Chipman said law enforcement never arrived, and not for lack of effort, but simply because no one called. Observed causes he said were rooted in differing expectations in law enforcement response. 

Residents living within violent neighborhoods often hold a skepticism whether police will arrive or not. The distrust and uncertainty, Chipman said, prompts reporting gaps or delays to preserve safety and incentivizes the purchase of personal handguns. Acoustic sensor systems like ShotSpotter and its competitors are envisioned to be analytic tools that assess neighborhood firearm discharges independently.    

“It will quickly tell us whether those police interventions are working or they’re not,” Chipman said.

Despite an acute emphasis on data, there was no hesitation when it came to the issue’s more controversial components. Landrieu called out the statistical disparity between black and white victims of gun violence as a “national epidemic” that demands consideration and serious public action. In New Orleans, as in other urban cities, African-American men, he said, represent an unjustly high amount of all the victims.

“There are about 85 to 95 [socially disadvantaged] neighborhoods within every major American city where, if you’re a young African-American boy -- and you live in this kind of environment -- you’re put at risk of getting killed at 100 times the national average,” Landrieu said.

Recent supporting statistical evidence of the disparity between black and white victims of gun violence was published in a Columbia University-authored study in August 2013. In a state-by-state analysis -- taken from 2000-2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) -- research revealed that firearm related deaths are twice as high for African-Americans compared to Caucasians.  

Landrieu said that in his opinion, such pervasive and repeating statistics aren’t just indicative of a problem for a minority population, but display a racial apathy from the governing majority.

Speaking for New Orleans, Landrieu said he and fellow department heads are trying to tackle gun violence as diligently as possible -- recent efforts yielding a 20 percent reduction in homicides, 193 to 156, from 2012 to 2013. However, much more study and intervention must be done for the African-American population, and especially African-American males ages 16 to 25, as they represent 90 percent of homicides in the city.

In Philadelphia and elsewhere, Burley said another ubiquitous problem in assessing root causes and identifying potential perpetrators lies in isolated department data. Much of it isn’t or cannot be shared between departments, and considering that shooters often interact with various government social services -- it’s an untapped resource for monitoring and social rehabilitation efforts.

"There's so much information and data that's out there and already available, but the problem is we have systems in place that don't share that information across agencies,” Burley said.
The panel listed mired attempts at pragmatic gun control legislation to track gun sales and distribution as highly problematic to data-centered prevention and enforcement methods. Acknowledging the argument that illegal black market guns are often used in crimes, Papachristos still urged for technological improvements -- and legislative changes if need be -- to improve current tracking methods for firearms commonly used in shootings.

“What you have to do to actually trace a firearm would appall you, when today we’re talking about big data, and Uber and all that stuff,” Papachristos said. “[Often] to trace a firearm, you have to physically go to a federally licensed dealer to look for a piece of paper, and it could be hundreds of miles away because we don’t allow that part of it to be regulated.”

Notwithstanding roots in a predominantly conservative state protective of gun rights, Landrieu  acknowledged legislative gun reform that tracks or takes guns from criminals would be beneficial; however, he said the war on violence -- and the pathology behind it -- cannot be isolated to one path, but should happen on multiple fronts and remediate violent behavioral patterns fostered over time.

"That's irrefutable, if individuals who are violent did not have access to guns, fewer people would get killed," Landrieu said. "The answer here is that it's not 'either/or,' it's 'both/and.'"

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.