U-M’s Detroit Data Fellows Aim to Improve the Way Police Fight Crime

In 1817, the University of Michigan was founded in Detroit before eventually relocating roughly 40 minutes west to Ann Arbor. As the school approaches its bicentennial next year, it has worked to rebuild and strengthen its ties to the Motor City through a number of novel partnerships, including the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy’s Detroit Data Fellows program.

The Detroit Data Fellows work with city agencies to incorporate data in solving social problems; increase the use of data in urban planning activities; help residents access and understand publicly available data; and strengthen the city’s relationship with the university.

The fellowship is designed as an interdisciplinary program open to U-M alumni with degrees in statistics, economics, political science, sociology, public policy, business, engineering, information, urban planning, social work, education, or related fields. The fellows get embedded in various city departments for two years, and the city will pay each a $50,000 annual stipend, plus benefits.

Earlier this month, Reid Wilson, who graduated from the Ford School last year, was chosen as the first Detroit Data Fellow, and as many as four additional fellows will eventually round out the first group. Wilson said he’ll spend the next two years analyzing Detroit Police Department (DPD) data to help understand crime patterns in real time. To prepare, he’ll participate in a weeklong data analysis boot camp on campus before applying his expertise in data mining and quantitative analysis to the police department’s statistics.

“It depends on what DPD wants, but I’ll take information derived from CompStat and other publicly available data to visualize what’s going on in each precinct,” Wilson said. “I’m bringing the ability to analyze large-scale datasets. Thus far, it’s been a systemic-level look at crime statistics. We assess trends and get to causality, if possible.”

With its severely limited resources, the city of Detroit has long lagged behind other major cities in terms of technology and modernization of computing and communications systems. In 2011, when we reported on the Wayne State University police department’s integration of data analysis into its crime-fighting strategy, David Martin, WSU’s research director of the Urban Safety Program, shared an anecdote from his early years in the field, when he worked with a DPD sergeant on digitizing part of the data-collection process in the late 1990s.

The sergeant had decided to dedicate his last years on the force to mapping the city’s streets. He also printed out hard copies of “data dumps” and then took the stacks of paper and ran them through scanners that converted the scanned images into text files. Then, the data was imported into mapping software.

The police department’s crime intelligence unit has come a long way since then, Wilson said. After the city declared bankruptcy, updating DPD’s technological capacity was seen as a way to improve public safety without major infrastructure investments. For example, earlier this year, DPD launched Project Green Light in cooperation with a handful of gas station owners to use digital cameras to track crime in real time. (In Detroit, gas stations seem to be a hotbed of questionable activity.) The program now has 31 partners in the local business community.

“Chief [James] Craig seems interested in being very data-focused and improving the department,” Wilson said. “The problem is never too little data.”

Wilson said even though the Detroit Data Fellows program has only recently gotten underway, he’s already hard at work creating maps depicting where crimes are happening across all of Detroit’s precincts, which will also highlight trends. He’s analyzing past DPD initiatives as well to measure their effectiveness in preventing crime. “At this point, all my work is internal, but it may be posted publicly later,” he said.

Wilson explained that he’s long had an interest in using data to promote equitable economic opportunities and growth, and he sees the Detroit Data Fellows as a continuation of those efforts. At U-M, he spent last year analyzing the effect of social welfare policy on low-income families.

“I think the Ford School gives students a great understanding of how policies affect people on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “I want my research to create actual change in Detroit and make it a safer place.”

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