D4GX Preview: Eyeing the Data Behind Gun Violence

Guns are used to kill more than 30,000 Americans every year. But unlike other public health threats such as influenza, the federal government has not taken the lead on researching the causes and consequences of gun violence.

As a result, cities and law enforcement have been increasingly at the forefront of collecting and responding to data related to gun violence to better inform public policy.

“When we make a list of things we don’t know about gun violence, it’s staggering,” says Mark Dredze, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, who is currently on sabbatical at Bloomberg. “Gun violence is a major health epidemic.”

That’s why efforts to capture and analyze gun data will be a focus at Bloomberg’s Data for Good Exchange on September 25, 2016. Registration is now open for this annual event, which is in its third year. This year’s theme is “better governance,” because while the private sector has embraced Big Data, many public interest problems are only now beginning to benefit from data analytics.

The U.S. gun homicide rate is lower today than it was in the early 1990s. Even so, the country still experiences 25 times the gun homicides of other developed countries, and the odds are even worse for Americans who reside in cities, according to a recent report by Everytown.

Everytown, the nation’s largest gun violence prevention organization, seeks to use data analytics to build evidence-based policy around guns. “One of Everytown’s core strategies is to make more data available on gun crime and violence, which is relatively unique among organizations doing this kind of work,” says Ted Alcorn, director of innovation at Everytown.

Gun injuries and deaths fall into three major categories: homicides, suicides, and unintentional shootings. Identifying and analyzing them separately is important for addressing gun violence effectively. For most cities, the majority of gun deaths are homicides.

But while public attention to urban gun violence may be on the rise, it’s often misinformed by conjecture or false beliefs. “Disentangling why gun violence happens at high rates in cities is something you can only do effectively through data,” says Alcorn.

For example, few cities currently use gun trace data to inform policing, says Alcorn. Efforts picked up speed in 1996 when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began a joint effort with cities to trace the movement of all guns recovered from criminals, from the manufacturer to the retail purchaser. Where cities have taken advantage of it, this data has proven to be a powerful crime-fighting tool.

Cities also have other streams of data that they could use to gain a better understanding of gun violence in their community. “Data and analysis are only as useful as the decisions they help us make in the future,” says Alcorn.

In a panel hosted by Everytown at D4GX 2016, Alcorn and expert speakers will discuss ways cities are using data to improve public health. One example is the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which helps Chicago use gun trace data to better understand and help fight the illegal trade in guns.

The Panelists

  • Mallory O’Brien: Founding Director of the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission
  • Roseanna Ander: Founding Executive Director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the University of Chicago Urban Education Lab, as well as Senior Director of Urban Labs at the University of Chicago
  • Christopher Getty: Mayor of the Village of Lyons, Illinois
  • Holly Howat: Executive Director at Lafayette Parish Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee

The use of analytics on gun-related datasets is in its infancy, and few cities have begun to collect insights, let alone act on them. The University of Chicago project is unique because it is aimed at tracing these weapons back to their first sale at licensed dealers. Understanding the movement of firearms can help law enforcement and policy makers understand how and when black market sales are occurring.

Beyond city-level data, decision makers can also examine a rich tapestry of information sourced from traditional and social media. These larger data sources can help inform questions about guns and suicide or unintentional shootings.

Dredze is mining social media to understand how people respond to the gun violence debate, especially after mass shooting like the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012. He notes that despite the focus on the issue and proposed gun legislation, there was little polling data at the time. “But we have methods that allow you to follow the shifts in the conversation,” he says.

For researchers studying gun violence, media data could be just one more tool in the box to help answer specific questions. “At Bloomberg, there’s a whole team that does social media analysis, trying to understand what people are saying on Twitter and what’s the context,” says Dredze. “It’s important if you want to understand the news, but it’s also important for other questions.”

To learn more about the public policy questions that researchers and policy makers are trying to answer with the help of data analytics, register for Data for Good Exchange, September 25 in New York City.