Looking at information differently


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Well, I hope I have set up the background to what I want to demonstrate to you.  I have said that I would show you examples of the practice that I am trying to model in my own work.

Lets just re-cap for a second, I want to do the following things:

1.  Raise the status of evidence at which the people are at the centre.  In other words talk to people, uncover their experiences, and make those the centre of research enquiry.

2.  Using open data to create visualisations that tell a new and different kind of story about young people and their experiences of socially and economically disadvantaged communities.

3.  Bringing together evidence driven by academics and new technologies to uncover new points of view and new theories on the subject of youth crime and its development across different kinds of communities.

4.  Visualising evidence differently to develop more interesting conversations with the people affected by the problems I describe.

Alright so in the next blog I will finally get onto the beginnings of bringing together the kinds of evidence that I think needs to be heightened both in status and relevance.  I also need to say that I know that many police departments, some researchers, and I am sure many other people that investigate these issues use this type of evidence on an ad hoc, less structured basis.  A part of what I want to demonstrate is that this needs to change, in fact we need a more structured look at new technologies as a resource for both evidence and engagement.

Using Chicago as a start I will religiously follow the above 4 points to demonstrate the impact of looking at evidence in a way that brings the above 4 points to life.


Telling a new story…

So we have very briefly looked at the background.  We will revisit these themes throughout the blog but right now I want to explore the area of computational social science. How do we examine evidence differently and particularly how do we begin to explore more fully how the social sciences can exploit the masses of information we have available to us to help gather and analyze evidence differently.

I want to start with some of the work that influenced me in exploring this area.  I should say that my interest is in socially and economically disadvantaged communities. I have been in public policy for a while and worked across government and the non profit sector.  I became somewhat disillusioned with the culture of social science as a discipline especially the way in which evidence is collected and its application to practice.  It seemed that while we had the ability to seek the right answers, the occupational culture that surrounds the collection and application of evidence is slow to keep up.  And yet we are constantly confronted with ingenious examples of how to view social problems differently.

I became aware of the ability of new technologies to tell a real time story in Toronto.  I was there in the summer of 2012 when there was a shooting at an outdoor party leaving one dead and a number wounded.  BitchSlappedbylogic found the news and posted on Reddit.  I was also reading a lot about what print and traditional media had to contend with when ordinary citizens could find the news first.  It seemed interesting that social media provided a ready tool to find events and phenomena in a more efficient way.  Quicker, more reliable, inexpensive, and directly from the people involved in those events themselves.

I also began delving more deeply into the ways in which science could support looking differently at evidence.  Initially I was moved by an article I read in the Edge.org, it was a conversation with Nicholas A. Christakis about the potential of social science to learn from the physical sciences and vice versa.  This debate has become a hot one over the last few years and a few related articles touch on the wider issues.

The article I read that got me on the road to thinking about these ideas more fully was by Nieman Journalism Lab contributor Jonathan Stray on the nature of algorithms, particularly its necessity in helping us shape how we perceive our world everyday.   I was struck mostly by how necessary algorithms were in helping us shape our personalised content, the way we shop, read daily news, engage in our social networks, the list goes on.

So I began to think, if a person (Bitchslappedbylogic) could simply string together a list of events using hashtags and have such incredible impact, what could an algorithm do to better understand some of the complex social problems we face?

And then I came across another short interview with Alex (Sandy) Pentland of MIT about the power of Big Data, not to determine peoples beliefs but to ascertain people’s behaviour.  You can imagine this was my lightbulb moment.  Not because this isn’t obvious but because at the time not only had the shooting happened in Toronto, but then there was a more high profile shooting in Chicago involving a prominent hip hop artist.  JoJo released a beef video aimed at Chief Keef and Lil Reese and was gunned down while riding his bike.  Of course it all unfolded on Twitter, including confronting the subject of his ‘diss’ video twice in the street and filming it.

There had been longitudinal research done in Chicago, Peterborough (the UK) and Los Angeles done on the nature of their youth crime problem.  All 3 were longitudinal studies on youth delinquency also asking the question why youth commit crime.  Imagine an algorithm that could mine this publicly available data to ask new and different kinds of questions (the only one of the three in which the data is not publically available is the Peterborough study done by Cambridge).  And further imagine that that data was combined with better understanding how an algorithm could design new kinds of information or evidence that could give us the answer to determining peoples behaviour in a way that could shed light on the issue.  Like, if the main question was why people commit crime, and one of the glaring gaps in evidence is better understanding behaviour over time then surely social media and the data it provides would answer some of those questions.

The Guardian did interesting work during the London riots using Twitter as a tool of analysis.  Again, it tells the same story from a completely different angle.

Hopefully I have given you some sense of the ways in which I am seeking to explore youth crime using openly available data in new ways.  I hope to give some examples of what is already out there, though there isn’t lots there is enough to demonstrate my point.

I know, there are three strands here, the first is the one about what constitutes the evidence of social science, the second is what the police follow and record and the systematic nature in which they do it, and third is the way we engage the public in conversations about how they are affected and what we do about it.

Chicago’s gun crime epidemic or a story of youth disenfranchised?


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My interest began with the story of Chicago so that is where I am going to start.  In the summer of 2012 Chicago experienced a huge spike in gang violence.  After years of a downward trend in gang and youth violence in one summer there is were more murders in Chicago than there were troop losses in Afghanistan.  The more startling statistic was that 508 murders had occurred in Chicago in 2012 and over 1,800 shootings.  Its hardly the murder capital of America though, that belongs to New Orleans, but the spike in murders is fascinating because it increased by 19% from the year before.  So I began to wonder what factors lead to such a dramatic increase in the space of months. What contributed to this phenomena, will it get worse and can we predict it?

Lets look at who is involved in youth crime in Chicago.   But I must also start by saying that the data and what it tells us is interesting, but it is pretty self evident, the stats tell the same story.

According to the Chicago Police Department (CPD), there were 22,877 arrests of youth 17 and under in 2012 (some youth may be arrested more than once). This represents a nearly 27% decline in juvenile arrests since 2009. (Arresting Justice 2, 8/13)

Expressed in per capita rates, in 2012, black youth were arrested 7.6 times per 100 youth, five times more frequently than Hispanic youth (1.5 arrests per 100 youth) and 10 times more frequently than white youth (0.7 arrests per 100 youth), (Cook, Czykieta, Mack,  Skrable, & Kaba 8/13).  Of the murders in Chicago in 2012 over 80% of the victims were African American.  They also make up 60% of the prison population across America.

Let me make clear, while I am interested in the racial dimensions of youth and adolescent crime, its isn’t my sole interest (it is a part of a wider narrative).  My primary aim is to better understand the factors that contribute to all forms of youth delinquency. The storytelling will give us a picture of what all young people go through, delinquent or otherwise.  And eventually when we move out of the fishbowl that is urban poverty, we will explore youth delinquency in rural areas which will tell its own story.  My hope, is to develop characteristics of youth crime that tell similar stories.  When we look at London, England we will examine what happens in semi rural areas where largely white young people are the subject of our inquiries but we’ve got a lot to get through.

We are starting in Chicago, and the group mainly affected are African Caribbean young men.  To summarise what we know so far, take a look at the Centre for American Progress’ 10 most startling facts about people of colour and the Criminal Justice System in the United States

As I was saying, the stats give us a clear story, but my problem is that its not the whole story.  We know that there are a number of factors that collide to create disadvantage, the outcome of stats on arrest, incarceration, poverty tell us lots, but little about why. So lets look at what I’ve found so far.

The stats can be found in several places, we will start with the Chicago Police Departments murder stats.  This gives us the background to begin telling our own story about the outcomes we are seeking to understand.

We are starting from the end and working backwards.

So we have the background, young people in poor areas tend to lack the social or economic infrastructure to support their healthy survival, broken family networks and dysfunctional neighborhoods lead to bad choices.  Inevitably leading to the delinquency so many experience in their communities.  It obstructs healthy outcomes.

In that short description we also know that there is so much to unpack.  Lets start with what is community, neighborhood, and how those contribute to producing healthy, vibrant, young people.

This question is one of constant debate, what is a neighborhood?  What makes a healthy neighborhood? When does a neighborhood become a community? And how do we know when a community or a neighborhood is a good or bad one?

Because we examine neighborhoods based on administrative boundaries does this stop our ability to analyse communities in ways that give us real answers?  In other words, is the fact that we try to understand communities based on factors other than how the people within those communities actually live in them does this stop us getting the right answers to some of our most pressing problems?

We will begin to examine some of what I think contributes to more dynamic evidence.

Can we look at youth crime?


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I’m interested in interactive maps and information to better understand youth delinquency.  I want to make better sense of what the convergence of factors are that contribute to youth crime.  By understanding this I hope to better understand youth delinquency in communities with a range of social and economic disadvantages.

I believe that the economic times in which we live threatens to heighten the disenfranchisement of young people, with raised delinquency levels being the ultimate result.  Can new technologies, primarily social media technologies help us grasp this better?

We don’t actually understand why crime happens.  We understand that a range of factors contribute to youth crime, we understand (variously) what happens in the commission of a crime and some the considerations involved in deciding where and how to commit a crime but we have little idea why youth commit crime.

I think that this is because we need to get smarter about how we uncover new evidence that is current, more reflective of the lives of young people, more spatial, more temporal, more reflective of the lives of young people.  I believe that the key is to reveal information about their lives over time.  This means we need to know what the sights and sounds of the streets in which they live look and feel like.  This blog is attempting to be a start.

I will discuss ideas, give you examples, create examples, and post current events.I’d like to do that in one place is an attempt to demonstrate that a lot of different kinds of information should contribute to solutions to social problems.  Including (almost most importantly) what people that live in those communities have to say.  And I will use youth delinquency as a subject example.

I am going to start with Chicago and Los Angeles.  I want to do this because while there is little information available in one place that demonstrates what I am seeking, there are more examples in these two cities then there are in any other.  I was actually going to start with 5 cities (and instead I’m going to work up to that).  The additional cities will be Toronto, London, and New York.  But the best place to start is Chicago and Los Angeles because they best demonstrate in different ways what I am talking about.  And of course because they have had extensive experience of dealing with the issue of youth crime and delinquency some prime examples of what I am talking about.

I’m going to try and separate in each blog when I’m giving you examples and when I’d giving you background or opinion (not the the examples aren’t laced with opinion) but I don’t want to confuse you by hiding examples in narrative about public policy in general.

So next blog will be some small examples I have found about the nature of Chicago’s youth delinquency.