Numbers and nonsense in Oakland’s Search for Public Safety

Oakland is once again talking about data and facts concerning crime, causes and policing practices, except we’re not really. We’re talking about an incredibly thin slice of a big reality, a thin slice that’s not particularly helpful, revealing nor empowering. And this is how we always do it.

Chip Johnson is raising the flag on our lack of a broad discussion about the complexity of policing practices and the involvement of African-Americans in the majority of serious crimes in our city, and on that I say he’s dead right, these are hard conversations and we’ve not really had them openly. The problem is, the data we’re given as the public (and our decision makers have about the same) is not sufficient to plan with, make decisions from nor understand much at all.  Once again we’re given a limited set of summary tables that present just tiny nuances of reality and that do not allow for any actual analyses by the public nor by policy makers. And if you believe that internal staff get richer analysis and research to work with you’re largely wrong.

When we assume that a few tables of selectively chosen metrics suffice for public information and justification for decisions or statements, we’re all getting ripped off.  And the truth is our city departments (OPD esp.) do not have the capacity for thoughtful analytics and research into complex data problems like these.  And this is a real problem.  Our city desperately needs applied data capacity, not from outside firms on consultancy (disclosure: my current role does this sometimes for the city) but with built up internal capacity.  There is a strong argument for external, independent access to data for reliable analysis in many cases, but our city spends hundreds of millions per year and we don’t have a data SWAT team to work on these issues for internal planning.  Take a look at what New York City does for simple yet powerful data analytics that saves lives, saves money and makes the city safer.  This is what smart businesses do to drive better decision making. 

Data, in context, with local knowledge and experience, evidence based practices (those showing success elsewhere) and a good process will yield smarter decisions for our city.

Data tables do not tell us about any nuances in police stops, we don’t know how these data vary across different neighborhoods nor anything about the actual situations around each stop- the lack of real data that shows incident level activity makes any real understanding impossible.

For example, the data report shows that White stops yield a slightly higher proportion of seizures/recoveries, so logic says why don’t the OPD pull over more White folks if they lead to solid hits at least as often?

Back in 2012 the OPD gave Urban Strategies Council all their stop report data to analyze, but there was no context nor any clear path of analysis suggested making it near impossible to produce thoughtful results, nor was it part of our actual contract.  But the data exist and should be used by the city to really understand how our police operate, the context of their work and the patterns that lead to meaningful impacts rather than habits that are not reflected upon and never questioned or changed.

it is not our cities job to just do the work, process the paperwork and never objectively review meta level issues.  According to our Mayor “Moving forward, police will be issuing similar reports twice a year”. We need data geeks in city hall to support our police and all departments and in 2014 we need to be better than data reports that consist of a set of summary tables alone.  Pivot tables are not enough for public policy.

If you’re still reading- the same problem arises with relation to the Shot Spotter situation- the Chief doesn’t think it’s worth the money, but our Mayor and CMs want to keep it- we now have the data available for the public but we’ve not really had any objective evaluation of the systems utility for OPD use- and we’ve certainly not had a conversation in public about the potential benefits of public access to this data in more like real time! Just looking at the horrendous reality of shootings in East Oakland over the past five years makes one pause very somberly when considering how much the OPD must deal with and how much they need more analytical guidance to do their jobs better and more efficiently.


For a crazy look at shootings by month for these five years take a look at this animation– with the caveat that not all the city had sensors installed the whole time and that on holidays a lot of incidents in the data are likely fireworks!  Makes me want to know why there is a small two block section of East Oakland with no gunshots in five years- the data have been fuzzed to be accurate to no more than 100 feet but this still looks like an oasis- who knows why?

Oakland’s Shot Spotter action in 2013

Given OPD’s recent suggestion that they want to ditch the Shot Spotter system and given the data are available, it seems worthwhile to start digging into the data to see what use they may have, starting with public benefits.  This map is a really simple visualization of the shots from January  to October of 2013.  At city level it becomes a mess, but at neighborhood level it is far more revealing.  Data in web friendly formats are available here also.

You can view it fullscreen here.*%20FROM%20oakshots%20where%20date_tim%20between%20

To see the areas of the city formally covered by this system use these [ugly] maps.

Truants vs Absence

Sometimes good public policy just comes down to the money.

The Attorney General Kamala Harris has published a nicely designed report to raise the profile of chronic absenteeism (kids missing more than 10% of school per year) and truancy (being late- hmm, not much of a comparison).  It does a good job of laying out the complex realities that are allowing this problem to continue and to grow in some parts of the state and in many communities.  The underlying root causes are complex, but the system components are as simple (sorta) as poor data management systems, lack of awareness and lack of effective interventions.  While many people will not empathize with the impact that students really do suffer long term from chronic absence and the fact that is does predict graduation incredibly well at 3rd grade levels, others need to just see the dollar figure.  The AG’s estimates put the cost to our state as a result of dropouts as $46 Billion a year. Given the well established links between chronic absence and graduation (I helped build that case with some work in 2007 with Hedy Chang), we can’t pretend that this is something not worth investing in- the cost benefits are enormous.

One of the more incredible findings in the AG’s work was this:

Student record systems need repair and upgrade to accurately measure, monitor and respond to truancy.

California is one of only four states in the country that does not collect individualized student attendance records at the state level.10 Even at the local level, only half of the school districts that responded to our California School District Leadership Survey (“District Leadership Survey”)11 were able to confirm that they track student absence records longitudinally—that is, they track individual students’ attendance year after year. The failure to collect, report and monitor real-time information about student attendance renders our most at-risk children – including English learners, foster children and low-income free- and reduced-price lunch students – invisible.

There are few people who would expect that our modern society is incapable of tracking student attendance in a meaningful way, yet many of California’s school districts are struggling to do just this.  And the lowdown is that lack of data means lack of scalable understanding- a single teacher may have an awareness of a student’s absenteeism, but when a struggling kid moves up a grade the knowledge of this problem is lost, and the administrators sure aren’t aware that the same child is on the same bad trajectory year after year.  We often see fancy video screen laden operations centers on TV, but the reality described in this report is that many districts aren’t doing basic analysis of chronic absenteeism and as such are surely not working on and aware of successful interventions to assist these students.

Give it a read, it’s well written and illustrates a real crisis in our cities. My 2c is that we largely ignore the truancy data presented- it’s a red herring. Follow the money and you’ll see the outcomes of chronic absenteeism as a huge money pit – unless we really address this across our state equitably.