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How Wilmington and CompassRed are fighting gun violence with data analysis

CompassRed has partnered with the State of Delaware to help prevent gun violence by analyzing state data. Can it really make a difference?

Gun violence remains a major problem in Delaware's largest city. (Photo by Flickr user michela, used under a Creative Commons license)

In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Division of Violence Prevention and the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control issued a report titled “Elevated Rates of Urban Firearm Violence and Opportunities for Prevention—Wilmington, Delaware.”

The goal? To reduce gun violence by utilizing data. Or, to be more specific, to to make it easier for Delaware’s various social service agencies to link and share data that can be used to identify and address risk factors.

Since this new territory for the agencies, the report recommended getting technical and legal counsel to make sure the plan followed the appropriate policies and procedures to protect privacy.

“The state has the data, mostly from social services, the labor department, emergency rooms and schools, said Dr. Kara Odom Walker, secretary of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services and chair of the Data Working Group of the Family Services Cabinet Council. “But the state has not analyzed our own data yet. We’re still trying to figure out how to use it and make sure it’s secure.”

That’s where CompassRed, the data analytics company based at The Mill, has come in. “They’re a firm that is local to Delaware, they understand firewalls and security and they know how to use data,” Walker said. 

Now, with the announcement earlier in the month that Delaware had been awarded an 18-month training and technical assistance grant from the University of Pennsylvania to develop this integrated data system, the project is under way.

But how does data fight violence?

To put it simply, it gives agencies more insight on what the risk factors are, and makes it easier to find youth who are at the highest risk.

Allegheny County, Pa., has been using data analysis to identify issues that lead to poor academic performance. The basic data they had told them what percentage of students had a history of human services involvement, which often correlates with poor grades.

However, according to the report:

A deeper analysis provides definition to these data and provides information about issues that might influence a student’s academic performance. In Penn Hills, for example, 24 percent of the children with human services involvement have a history of involvement with child welfare, and 20 percent had involvement in mental health services. Almost 30 percent lived in families receiving food stamps and six percent were homeless. These analyses provide other details, such as where the students live and what local schools they attend, and explore important issues, such as chronic absenteeism, in greater depth.

Not only that, but when data isn’t analyzed, it can distort the picture:

Recently, DHS researchers used the integrated student and human services data to examine student homelessness. They found a wide gap in the number of students that DHS identifies as homeless and the number of students that schools identify as experiencing a housing crisis — a gap due largely to the different definitions of homelessness that guide DHS and school districts. This disconnect between students considered homeless can impact access to services and support designed to increase housing stability and avert a crisis.

That “disconnect” is basically kids falling through the cracks because agencies didn’t have the capability to look closely enough.

In a 2017 CDC Call to Action for Delaware called “Accelerating Youth Violence Prevention and Positive Development,” the importance of identifying and addressing risk factors through services and support systems is stressed.

The report starts with the anecdotal true stories of two men — one who grew up in poverty, turned to crime and landed in Ferris before turning his life around with the help of agency-based support systems; and the other an affluent kid who was given no support after suffering a trauma and is now serving 54 years in prison for firearms offenses.

It highlights an issue with at-risk teens: Sometimes, it takes committing crime and getting put into Ferris to get the support they need. It’s important to support youth who are already in trouble, of course, but when policy focuses primarily on helping youth after they’ve committed crimes, it’s not focusing on preventing them from hurting people in the first place. And, as the second example shows, lack of support itself is a risk factor, even without poverty.

With better data analysis comes better support, which should correlate with less crime. It’s a project that could impact the city greatly, and CompassRed founder Patrick Callahan is ready for it.

“Wilmington is CompassRed’s home, and we’re proud that the State of Delaware came to us to address this crisis,” Callahan said. “Solving problems with data is the backbone of what we do.”

Companies: State of Delaware / CompassRed

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