Big Data to Make Boston StreetSafe…

This is not just another Big Data story. Or just another post on innovation. Or another good read on entrepreneurship. But it does touch on all of those things. And it shows the very real impact innovation and big data can have on our lives.

A few nights ago I walked some of the toughest Boston neighborhoods with Ed Powell, the Executive Director of StreetSafe Boston, meeting former gang leaders. StreetSafe is an organization which puts young caseworkers on the most violent streets in Boston to intervene in gang activity – literally standing in the line of fire. Ed is a real inspiration himself, having grown up in these same neighborhoods.  The brilliance of this start-up is to focus resources directly at one of the most disturbing problems facing our cities today – kids killing kids. You see, Ed has recruited his own gang – a team of counselors, some of whom are former gang leaders (whom he calls “street workers”), to connect with current gang members to re-direct them toward job training and other social services. After a shooting in these neighborhoods, Ed’s “gang” is up most of the night literally preventing further retribution violence.

That night I learned a number of troublesome and distressing facts about Boston’s gang situation.

  • 70% of shootings in Boston happen on only 5% of the city’s blocks so the problem is readily identifiable.
  • One in 100 of Boston’s youth belong to gangs; those kids account for nearly 75% of the city’s gun violence.
  • There are estimated to be 120 gangs in Boston, but few if any national gangs. Our gangs tend to be smaller and organized on a hyper-local basis, literally a gang on each street – which makes for dramatic scenes of urban warfare given the proximity of these gangs. Watch a gang member on the street and see how his head is constantly swiveling.
  • A 1.5 square mile area accounts for nearly 80% of our shootings and murders – that is a really small area. It is effectively a one mile stretch down Blue Hill Avenue, which is monitored by only four of Boston police districts.
  • Not surprisingly these gangs are highly organized and are run like small start-up’s. Unlike years ago, drugs today are not the major contributor to gang violence in Boston, but rather historic grievances passed from one generation to the next. Coincidentally, my firm (Flybridge) met with a very interesting start-up out of Harvard today called Nucleik, which has developed software to map gang hierarchy (they were also featured on 60 Minutes this past weekend).
  • Recently enacted local legislation, which instituted 10-15 year mandatory prison sentences for gun shootings, has led directly to a significant spike in stabbings. For some reason, not yet understood, stabbings in the South End have increased even more dramatically this year.
  • Nearly 25% of gang shootings result in death.
  • The Big Data angle: Ed is aggressively capturing a number of variables to better characterize gang profiles – ethnicity, number of conflicts, age and race of participants, addresses, social connections, etc.

With better data capture, Ed believes he can more precisely segment gang populations and therefore develop more tailored, more appropriate solutions to reduce gang violence. Ed has the “street workers” carry diaries to log dozens upon dozens of data points when they are out on their shifts. Impressively, in StreetSafe’s third year of operation, his 20 “street workers” are engaged with 332 active gang members and have spent, on average, 52 hours with each youth – a highly leveraged business model. His four Case Managers, who manage transitions for these gang members into job training, remedial education or other social service programs work with 171 youths and have placed 67 of them in jobs.

And the initial data support his thesis of the power of this type of intensive intervention. The gangs which work with StreetSafe exhibited a 32% reduction in shootings over the first three years of engagement. Many of the neighborhoods studied showed even more dramatic reductions (Grove Hall down 46%, Bowdoin/Geneva down 54%, Morton/Norfolk down 47%), while some neighborhoods were only modestly down, and for some yet unknown reasons, Dudley was up 43%. Better analytics should bring more clarity to why that is. I hope to have one of our Big Data analytics portfolio companies look at this problem as well.

As StreetSafe expands, and more data are collected, it should be even more evident that this level of outreach will lead to far fewer fatalities. On behalf of the Boston Foundation, StreetSafe’s most significant benefactor, Harvard University is conducting a multi-year, multi-million dollar Big Data study to better understand the complexities of inner city youth violence, so there is an expectation of greater insights shortly.

But how do we calculate the ROI on fewer shootings? When you meet these kids, you conclude it is immeasurable.

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