Putting Violence on the Map

New York City uses GIS to analyze and improve the effectiveness of domestic violence programs.

by / June 2, 2006
As an academic researcher at Columbia University in 2003, Tracy Weber used GIS to study the effects of Agent Orange and other herbicides on soldiers who served in Vietnam.

Today, as director of grants and interagency coordinator at the New York City Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence (OCDV), Weber applies the same technology to protect city residents against domestic abuse.

Stopping Domestic Violence
New York City voters created the OCDV in 1991 through an amendment to the city charter to address domestic violence issues. Working with a variety of city agencies, community organizations, health-care providers and others, the OCDV creates policies and programs, monitors the delivery of domestic violence services, and raises awareness of the problem.

"There are only a few other cities that have a Mayor-level office or department specifically looking at domestic violence," Weber said. "The mayor is very supportive of the work we do. When I came to this office, I was always looking for an opportunity to showcase the data we had using mapping."

At first, Weber said she relied on colleagues in other city departments to analyze her data in their GIS systems. That, however, was a cumbersome process, and she didn't want to impose on other agencies' time.

In 2004, Weber's office received a set of GIS software packages through the MapInfo e-Government Grant Program. MapInfo, based in Troy, N.Y., offers software grants to highlight ways GIS can be used in mainstream business applications, said John McCarthy, the company's director of public sector sales.

Agencies awarded grants from the e-Government Grant Program received MapInfo Professional, the company's desktop application; MapMarker, its geocoding software; enhanced geographic data, such as detailed street data; and MapInfo Discovery, a tool for publishing the results from a map analysis on an intranet or Internet server.

MapInfo Discovery makes it easy to provide the results of an analysis to viewers inside or outside an organization, said Nathan Lobban, MapInfo's account manager for the public sector.

"It allows these other people who aren't experts to be part of that process and benefit from the analysis," Lobban said.

Since this was the same GIS software Weber used at Columbia, she rapidly adapted it to her new mission. She started using the applications to study patterns of domestic violence reported throughout the city; analyze the effectiveness of domestic violence outreach programs; and offer easy-to-understand presentations to city agencies, nonprofit organizations and elected officials.

Along with the data MapInfo provided, Weber obtained substantial geographic information -- data on streets, boundaries, congressional districts and other items -- from New York's Department of City Planning. Since City Planning also used MapInfo software, Weber simply downloaded those files from a Web server.

Weber imported data related to OCDV activities from her own management system using Microsoft Excel, as well as data on domestic violence complaints received at each police precinct.

Reporting Abuse
One analysis Weber performed with the GIS is quantifying the number of domestic incident reports (DIRs) each precinct receives during a given period.

Shading on the map makes it easy to compare results. On a borough of Queens map, for example, precincts that received the fewest DIRs might be a white or a light shade, she said. The more calls a precinct receives, the darker it appears.

Capabilities like this help the OCDV plan its activities. Weber uses the system to compare which precincts have the most DIRs or the most reported homicides, and which areas of the city, by ZIP code, generate the most calls to the New York City Domestic Violence Hotline.

"It's really interesting for me to see where these incidents are either being reported to the police or called into the hot line, as well as population and things like that," Weber said. "Are there certain areas that are underserved and further outreach would be needed?"

The mapping system also helps the OCDV fine-tune outreach programs to make them more effective by better targeting New York's immigrant populations.

"When we go into different areas, either if it's a one-time outreach or if it's a program that we're looking to launch in a particular area of the city, [the GIS] is really helpful for us to understand what the primary language needs are in that area and to plan accordingly," Weber said.

At Brooklyn's Family Justice Center, one of the OCDV's partner organizations, the maps help employees understand where clients come from and how the center might reach more people. Opened in July 2005, the Family Justice Center is housed in the same building as the Brooklyn District Attorney's office.

The center brings together the domestic violence unit of the prosecutor's office and its counseling staff, as well as representatives of 13 community groups, six faith-based groups, five groups providing civil attorneys and several volunteer programs. The center offers a one-stop center for domestic violence victims and their families, Weber said.

"The first map that Tracy created for me was a mapping of the ZIP codes of origin of all our clients," said Amy Barasch, executive director of the Family Justice Center. Another analysis compared ZIP codes of origin with DIR data, to see if clients who use the center's services tend to come from areas with the highest rates of reported domestic violence.

They do, and that's not surprising, Barasch said.

"Because we are located with the DA's office, most of our cases right now are victims who have criminal court cases. So it makes sense they're coming from the areas in which more domestic violence crime was reported."

Better Outreach
Beyond victims of domestic violence already working with the courts, the center is trying to reach people who have not yet lodged complaints. If it succeeds, future maps may show visits to the center outstripping DIRs, but that sort of analysis is complicated, Barasch cautioned.

"Maybe we'll do such good outreach when we bring people in, they will be reporting the crimes, and it will just mean the reported crime data will shift with us," she said. "I don't know. But we would expect to see some kind of shift."

Whatever the maps show, Barasch said, she and her staff anticipate using them to evaluate the success of future community outreach efforts.

"Let's say we make a big push to do outreach with the hospitals," she said. "We could then try to map how many people from each ZIP code came in, and how many of them were referred by a hospital."

Barasch will also use the GIS to try to find out why the percentage of Spanish-speaking clients at the Family Justice Center is disproportionately higher than the surrounding community.

Besides using the maps for in-depth data analysis, the center relies on them as presentation tools. When Barasch visits a police precinct, she brings a map tracking the number of visits to a specific center, and in some cases, urges local agencies to make more referrals.

"We collect a lot of data here, and sometimes people's eyes glaze over if you just give them the numbers," Barasch said. "The visual can be a really helpful alternative way to see information."

Since the center has been open for less than a year, Barasch and her staff are just starting to take advantage of the OCDV's maps and haven't yet explored all the possibilities they offer, though that's something that she plans to do.

Weber said a map has much more impact than a series of tables when the OCDV makes presentations to the City Council or community groups.

"One of our goals in this office," Weber said, "is to provide information to the public, stakeholders and others about the scope of domestic violence -- where it's occurring, how often it's occurring -- and to provide education and information."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs