“A/B testing” the impact of school closures using crime data

This weekend, the Knight Lab is sponsoring a hack day focusing on Chicago Crime Data as made available by the Tribune’s crime data portal and API.

I’m a little wary of crime data first because crime data does not equal a resident’s experience of safety.  It’s easy to think of situations where crimes go unreported, or where increased community cohesiveness might lead to an increase in crime reports.  Second, the way crime stats are framed and parsed by Chicago residents often seems to be alarmist and often further stresses racial and economic tensions in gentrifying communities rather than offering a space for increased community collaboration or developing progressive solutions to neighborhood safety.

Are there uses of crime data that contribute to a different civic discourse? One idea that came to me is based on this current moment where Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is slated to close a number of schools.  One issue raised by critics is the safety of students who may have to cross gang boundaries to reach their new “welcoming school”.  CPS’ proposal to provide resources for students who must attend a new school after their school has been closed, includes an expansion of the “Safe Passage” program which partners with neighborhood organizations to help increase safety for students on the way to and from school. From my knowledge as a caregiver of CPS students and as a frequent news consumer, I don’t have much sense of how successful this program has been so far.  After the closures happen, how will CPS and city residents know how school closures affected students on their way to and from school?

I hypothesize that we might be able to use crime data as one way to see changes in communities after schools have been closed.  I also think this is a general case of “how does crime change along with some policy event”.  I imagine a web platform where residents can define an “experiment” by looking at a specific geography, types of crime and time period.  Crime data would then be compared before and after the test time period to see how crime changed.

In general, I think it’s important to frame these experiments as “what changed” instead of “did this work” because I think the crime data set probably isn’t enough on its own to determine


  • What kind of crimes would be indicators of school commute safety? Or, should we look at crimes from specific time periods before and after school?
  • What methods do sociologists use to do these kinds of comparisons?
  • Which schools/communities currently participate in the “Safe Passage” program

Other use cases:

  • Neighborhood cleanups
  • Proposed city legislation targeting liquor stores
  • “Positive loitering”
  • Negative outcomes for heightened targeting of youth by police

Who’s accountable?

This is another “inspiration” I submitted to the 2013 Knight News Challenge. The original post is here.

Your block has been skipped in trash pickup for the last month! The air conditioning in your child’s public school building doesn’t work very well! Details about entitlement benefits are changing or confusing but you’re not sure who to ask!

There has been awesome progress for helping people identify their elected officials based on geopgrahic boundaries, or reporting issues that are a government’s responsibility, but there is still a gap in identifying the individuals or entities within a structure of governance that are responsible for specific services or information. This creates a frustrating lack of responsiveness, real or perceived, to civic concerns.

Can technology be used to visualize and query boundaries of civic accountability around services, programs, issues or problems in the same way that we can with geographic boundaries? Can this be done in a way that is open, scalable and deployable across government and civic entities?

Categorized as Civics, Ideas

Overflow at civic meetings doesn’t have to mean silence

This is an “inspiration” that I posted as part of the 2013 Knight News Challenge.  The original post is here.

Public meetings are a fundamental means of civic participation in the United States.  However, in cities like Chicago, meetings can be notoriously overcrowded causing participants to have to wait in line, sit in overflow areas or be locked out. In other cases, public comment can be monopolized or sidetracked by a few outspoken participants or tensions (or real threats) can intimidate people from speaking publicly. Economic mobility, physical ability, childcare needs and differences in language can also impede participation in public comment.

Digital technologies offer an opportunity for officials, advocates and journalists to enage people in public comment in real-time, in a physical place, or to connect participants across barries of geography, ability and time.  They also offer a parallel means of public comment that can act as a sort of A/B test for existing forms of public comment. Who participates through digital parallels who doesn’t in the big room of a civic forum? What topics, questions or concerns are surfaced through digital parallels that aren’t raised at the microphone? In this way, communities deploying digital technologies for forum participation don’t aim to replace time-honored methods of civic engagement, but instead gather insight into ways to improve in-person events.

Categorized as Civics, Ideas

Reframing civic hacking

I’m moderating a panel titled Civic Hacking for Self Governance at this summer’s Allied Media Conference .

The idea for this session originally started with Matt Hampel and other members of the 2012 Code for America team working in Detroit.

Matt originally wanted to work on a session bringing together people looking at technological interventions in the civic space that help facilitate government institutions in civic process.  While this is an exciting space, I felt it was important to look at non-technical interventions that still felt like “hacks” as well as interventions, technical and social, that worked as part of governance though perhaps without the sanction of government institutions.

I’m excited about how this framing of “civic hacking” has shaped up and the panel now also includes Joshua Breitbart who works with the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation and is going to talk, if I can do a good job of paraphrasing this, about community self-governance through the lens of mesh wifi networks. Also on the panel will be Maria Hadden of the Participatory Budgeting Project who comes from working on less technical interventions that still feel like they incorporate a lot of the iterative and collaborative elements that are familiar to me in open source technologies.

In trying to come up with a framing that unifies civic interventions that range from technical and non-technical approaches

  • What makes something hacking?
  • What is the different between government and governance?
  • Can we use technical metaphors to describe civic engagement and governance?


I’m going to be writing about these questions on this blog as I prepare for this session at the end of June.