Urban Legend

Brett Goldstein sat in his seat at the back of an airplane that was taxiing across the tarmac on Chicago Midway Airport. He felt a frisson of fear. It should have been an unremarkable day. Goldstein, 26, had spent the previous two years running operations for OpenTable, one of the last of the Internet startups of 1999, which helped people book tables at their favorite restaurants. As jobs went, it was a good fit at the time, the type of role that any young professional might dream of. Goldstein spent a great deal of time on planes, since the website was keen to expand its global footprint.

But on that day, September 11, 2001, Goldstein sensed that his cozy world was unraveling. Around him, cell phones and pagers were buzzing. A voice came over the intercom and told everyone to leave the plane. Baffled, Goldstein walked with a stream of passengers into an unusually silent airport terminal, and saw crowds of people frozen around television screens, silently watching as a plane smashed into the World Trade Center. Confused and panic-stricken, he tried to call his wife at home in Chicago, and his colleagues scattered around the world, but the cell phones no longer worked.

Goldstein stumbled into a car and asked the driver to head to the outskirts of Chicago, where he lived. As he sat listening to the radio, something inside him snapped. Until that moment, Goldstein had assumed his life was going well. But suddenly he felt dissatisfied. “Listening to NPR and watching CNN, I realized that there were a lot of people doing really important things that day,” he explained. “So I asked myself: Do I want my whole life story to be about building a large Internet network which allowed people to go out to dinner? I was helping the portion of the population that could afford to go out to nice restaurants, to go out better. It was a really good idea and I think we were doing it pretty well – but it dawned on me that I needed to do something that mattered.”

OpenTable was expanding at a ferocious speed, and the travel and work kept him busy. But in his rare, quiet moments he kept tossing around ideas about what else he might do. He initially assumed the best way to give back would be to make a donation to charity or do some community volunteering. Then one weekend, he saw a newspaper piece about a new campaign to recruit white-collar professionals for police counterterrorism work in New York. Goldstein was intrigued. He did not want to move to New York. But could he replicate that idea with the Chicago police?

When he floated the idea to his friends and family, most of them were bemused. Goldstein had grown up in a quiet suburb of Boston and attended “one of those private boarding school things,” as he sometimes joked. He was thin and so shy that he got nervous when he had to make public presentations. He had never touched a gun. Indeed, the nearest he had ever come to a patrol car was watching Hollywood movies. “My parents freaked out,” he recalled. “No one understood why someone who had helped to grow OpenTable would want to be in the police. People were like, ‘Fine, if you want to go and do public service, great – but get an academic job or a job with RAND.’ ”

The one person who was supportive was Goldstein’s wife, Sarah. So he quietly registered to take the written examination, and shortly afterward he passed. When they got his application, the police officers were almost as baffled as Goldstein’s parents. But Goldstein insisted he wanted to join. At the back of his mind he had a fledgling idea: If he managed to be accepted onto the police force, could he put some of his professional experience to good use there? Could he find a way to serve, or even improve the system? He had little idea exactly how he might do that. But against the odds, and without quite realizing it, Goldstein was about to embark on an adventure that would change his life.

Though he did not know it, Goldstein’s decision to join the police force came at an opportune time. The Chicago Police Department is one of the largest and most tradition-infused forces in the country. Many of its 13,000 members have spent their entire lives working for the force, and their parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents have often been policemen too. Not surprisingly, the city’s police chiefs have almost always hailed from the ranks of this tight-knit tribe. The force is notoriously slow to trust anybody who is not one of their own, and many members are particularly suspicious of people from outside the area.

But just as Goldstein was making his dramatic career transition, the Chicago police force was undergoing its own upheaval following significant scandals involving brutality and corruption. In 2007, the superintendent resigned. And in a bid to provide a fresh face, city leaders recruited an outsider, Jody Weis.

Weis, who was appointed on February 1, 2008, looks like an archetypal policeman: broad-shouldered, with a chiseled face and wide-set eyes. But many local police officers thought that his 22-year career with the FBI made him unsuited to the job. Weis preferred to think of this as an advantage.

During most of his career, Weis had worked in a world marked by extensive silos. The different sections of the police, FBI and CIA tended to hoard information out of a mixture of defensiveness, suspicion or tribal rivalry. This created informational logjams, sometimes with disastrous results. One well-known example of this arose in the American intelligence services in the run-up to the 2001 attacks: Intelligence officials had received signals that Al Qaeda was planning an attack, but there was no coordinated approach to fighting the threat because different pieces of information were held in different corners of the bureaucracy.

Weis thought there was another way to combat crime: use better types of information flows. During the time that he was running the FBI in Philadelphia, he had helped to create an interactive live computer system that enabled the different agencies to talk to one another about criminal and terrorist threats. To anyone outside the world of security operations, this data-sharing might have seemed like a blindingly obvious step. But many long-serving police officers and FBI agents hated the idea. “Even ten years after 9/11 some of my closest friends [in the FBI] were still saying that we shouldn’t do all this terrorism and intelligence stuff,” Weis admitted. But he was convinced the security forces in America had to change how they operated: The world around them was becoming so interconnected and fluid, nobody could afford to stick in just one professional box. The FBI and CIA had to break down their silos. So did the police, particularly in forces that were very large, like Chicago’s. 

•   •   •

In August 2006, almost three years after submitting his application, Goldstein reported for training at the Chicago Police Academy, a squat gray building on the city’s West Side. On the first day, he was put into a pack of other new recruits and marched into a cafeteria. “They are barking orders at you,” he recalled. “You are broken into what they call ‘home rooms,’ and you’re marching single-file, with this quasi-military organization, and they are talking about uniforms. Stuff I know nothing about. You have all this gear you are supposed to get: shorts, T-shirts, shoes that have no logos. No logos!”

It was a brutal immersion. After marching in file, Goldstein’s unit was ordered to conduct a time-honored maneuver known as a “lean and rest,” a procedure where recruits are frozen still in a pushup, motionless, for long periods of time. Goldstein could not see what the point of the ritual was; to him, the exercise seemed utterly useless. But the police considered the lean and rest a crucial part of the training. “That first week of August was exceptionally hot and there wasn’t any AC,” he recalled. “So you are in your lean and rest, sweat dripping from your head and creating a pool under you. But you know if you break your position you’re going to get yelled at. And then, just when you think you’re done, then you have calisthenics, which is jumping jacks, pushups, and it just goes on and on. Then they take you on a run, and you are doing this exercise on this uphill driveway thing where you are lifting one of your classmates and carrying them up.”

That night, Goldstein hobbled home, dazed and aching, and threw himself into an iced bath. The next day he returned, clutching ibuprofen, and went through the routine again. Then again, and again. He was older than the other recruits, and had far more academic qualifications. The coursework seemed childishly easy, but he continued to struggle with the physical training. Then he was given a gun and set about shooting at a target with the same analytical intensity he had applied to all other areas of his life. “I actually found I was good at that,” he recalled. “I shot fourth out of the hundred people in my class.”

The next phase of his training was even more brutal. Goldstein graduated as class valedictorian, an honor that gave him the right to choose what part of Chicago he wished to work in. Many parts of Chicago are safe and quiet, particularly around the wealthy suburbs. But Goldstein reckoned he needed to be near the action to learn the job. So he asked to join a patrol in the 11th District on the West Side, one of the most violent, gang-ridden districts in the city. He tried to bond with the other officers. But they were suspicious of a recruit who was obviously wealthier and better educated than most cadets. Eventually, during one lunch hour, Rod Gardner, assigned as Goldstein’s training officer, furtively pulled him aside and told him that his colleagues were all convinced he was a plant. “You learn exceptionally fast, you never ask questions about paperwork, you’re quiet, you’re older and you’re professional,” Gardner said. “Everybody thinks you’re undercover FBI.”

As the months passed, Goldstein could sense that the experience of patrolling his beat was slowly changing him. Some days, he wondered if his whole adventure was as pointless as the lean and rest. On others, he realized that he was learning about a new world. A few years earlier, he had assumed that violence and poverty were things that happened to other people. To him, being normal was living in a calm, safe environment where children went to school and entrepreneurs made money by designing brilliant apps or websites. But patrolling the West Side, Goldstein saw that his former life was not the rule but the exception.

In the summer of 2009, almost exactly three years after he had first turned up for training, an incident happened that highlighted this sense of change. One day, he was driving to get ice cream with his pregnant wife and one-year-old son when he saw a gang member pull out a gun and start shooting at the car in front of him. Shots were fired, and Goldstein realized that the gunman had just killed someone. Three years earlier, he would have fled the scene to protect his family and then called the police. But now he slammed on his brakes, grabbed his gun, leaped out of the car and ran toward the gunman. Goldstein chased the man into an alley, where he managed to disarm him and conduct an arrest. “People say that time slows down during these things. Not for me. Everything just happened exceptionally fast. I went into an alley with someone who was armed and had just killed someone, and I didn’t get shot,” he recalled. “Everything was training, because certainly if I had to think about it, what is the right choice in a situation like that? My pregnant wife is in the car, and the dude is shooting, so what do you do?”

Goldstein received multiple awards for bravery. But he knew he was lucky to have survived. He would never look at crime statistics in quite the same way again. Suddenly murder felt very personal. 

•   •   •

By the middle of 2009, Weis was feeling frustrated. He had arrived in Chicago determined not just to clean up the image of the police but also to cut the city’s sky-high murder rate. In 2008, the first year of Weis’s command, the murder rate had gone up. Weis blamed the spike on the demise of the “special operations section,” or SOS, which had been disbanded in the wake of the scandals that preceded his arrival. Weis quietly reinstated the unit under a new name, Mobile Strike Force. The murder rate began to fall slightly, but by most measures the death toll remained shockingly high. “When Chicago is compared to its big-city brethren, Chicago’s per capita murder rate is double that of Los Angeles and more than double that of New York City,” an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times declared. “Violent crime is clustered most intensely on Chicago’s West and South Sides, terrorizing law-abiding citizens.” Weis repeatedly faced questions about whether the city was spinning out of control. He insisted it was not. But with every month that passed, fresh stories broke about gangland killings, and a blizzard of gory images spread across the Internet.

As the political pressure mounted, Weis cast around for new ideas. In the summer of 2009, his chief of staff, former U.S. marine Michael Masters, tossed out a novel thought. Masters had met Goldstein in the mayor’s office when the recruits graduated from the Police Academy, and Goldstein had shared his interest in helping law enforcement improve its approach to data analytics. Weis summoned Goldstein to hear his ideas. Goldstein explained how he had once used advanced computer modeling techniques and sophisticated mathematics to help OpenTable thrive. If algorithms could work out which restaurants were hot and match these to customers, Goldstein suggested, maybe they could also track crime patterns.

Weis, who had seen what computer analytics could do at the FBI, ordered Goldstein to move from the 11th District into a small, windowless office at police headquarters. Goldstein installed a couple of old computers, collected all the crime data he could find and started crunching the numbers. Was there a rhythm to gangland shootings? A particular place and time when murders tended to occur? Goldstein plotted the death reports onto a big computer screen alongside other data on violence and then looked for other factors that might be correlated to these tensions. There was a folk belief among police that crime increased during a full moon. Goldstein compared data on past murders against the lunar cycle and found little correlation. But when the temperature moved by more than 15 degrees in a short period, there was a big jump in crime. Conversely, when it became extremely hot – say, above 90 degrees – crime fell.

The most important factor in determining the murder rate, by far, was the movement of gangs. An estimated 75 gangs with almost 70,000 members were operating across the city, and their territories shifted often as the drug trade and other criminal activities developed. The police had never tried to monitor these patterns in a systematic way. Goldstein started to collect reports about gang movements and put them on a centralized database, using a technique known as geospatial and temporal reporting. “You could see the migration of the gangs and this conflict,” Weis observed. “Brett color-coded it on the chart, and it almost looked like amoebas interacting. You had gangs fighting for a particular area to sell narcotics. We could get the information that day and then see the interaction zone getting bigger and bigger.” Goldstein plotted his chart of gang movements against the reports of murders. Not surprisingly, this showed a high level of correlation.

Indeed, the rhythm was so closely connected that if you factored in other items such as temperature swings, the chart seemed to have predictive powers. Even if you knew nothing else about what was happening, just watching the pattern of gang movements could give you a good clue about which streets and city blocks were likely to see the biggest wave of deaths in the coming days, or even hours. The maps, in other words, did not just predict in a general sense what might occur but gave real-time, immediate signals. “While it’s fine to say, ‘This is a bad block,’ we wanted to start being able to say, ‘This is going to be a bad block tonight,’ ” Goldstein said.

By the start of 2010, Weis was ready to launch an experiment. He told Goldstein to start issuing warnings about where crime was likely to explode next. The idea was that if Goldstein knew where violence was likely to erupt, the police and Mobile Strike Force units could scramble to respond. Goldstein insisted that this communication was a two-way interaction. He needed to collect all the live data that he could about conditions on the ground. So each day he issued his forecasts and peppered the patrol officers with questions. Were particular gangs fighting over drugs? Was there an incident over a girlfriend? He pored over arrest logs. Then he plugged that data into his algorithms. Goldstein was keen to centralize the information flows and remove the bureaucratic splits that had plagued the force in the past. So he passed his information out to the regular patrol officers and the Mobile Strike Units.

Within a couple of months, Weis had promoted Goldstein to the high rank of commander, an honor usually only given after decades of service on the streets. Resentment festered. Angry officers started to refer to his experiment in scathing terms as the “crystal ball unit.” “The jealousies were amazing,” Weis recounted. “You have got folks who have been three, four, five generations of policing and their grandfathers never had computers. So they don’t like the idea of change at all. Some guys embraced it. But a lot of them looked at it and thought, This is total BS.”

By the end of 2010, Goldstein, Masters and Weis were elated. Their data maps were giving good signals about where murders were likely to occur in a general sense, and they could even, on occasion, predict short-term developments. Better still, it seemed as if the murder rate was falling. At the start of 2011 the city announced the latest murder statistics, which showed that the murder rate for 2010 was 5 percent below 2009, its lowest level since the 1960s. In early 2011 it fell even faster. Traditionally in Chicago, the most intense bout of killing occurs in the summer months, when gangs are on the streets. But in the summer of 2011, the murder rate tumbled to another historic low. Indeed, when Goldstein extrapolated the statistical trends forward, it looked as if Chicago would record fewer than 400 homicides in the entire year.

Weis and Goldstein did not know how much of that shift was related to the use of their murder maps. But the anecdotal evidence was strong. By sending the special units to the places identified as locations where homicides were about to occur, it seemed that the police were actually preventing some of the killing. 

•   •   •

In 2011, Rahm Emanuel became mayor of Chicago. Soon after, Jody Weis announced he would step down. Then Mayor Emanuel asked Goldstein to move to City Hall and replicate what he had done for the whole city. Goldstein was wary. He had become worn down by the infighting and was thinking of joining another startup in the private sector. But he was flattered by Emanuel’s offer and intrigued, since no city had ever before created the position of chief data officer. So he jumped another boundary to City Hall, hoping to start more experiments. Like most American cities, Chicago’s government was sitting on a vast ream of data about its citizens. But – again like most cities – the government held its data in numerous silos. So Goldstein started trying to combine all this information into a single database. He pulled in volunteers from the Chicago startup scene and christened them the “nerd herd.” Their style of working was radically different from what City Hall was used to. They wore T-shirts. They ate donuts at their laptops. They drew diagrams and equations on whiteboards. And when they ran out of space, they scribbled on the windows. “The mayor would walk by and give me a look to say, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” Goldstein recalled. But slowly some projects emerged. After one “hackathon” (an all-night brainstorming session) organized in conjunction with Google, a local web developer named Scott Robbin created an interactive map that could show the public what had happened to any car that had been towed by the traffic police. Then the nerd herd created an interactive map to show residents what was happening with street sweeping. Eventually, Goldstein decided to pull together all the different data series into a giant interactive map that showed residents and government officials what was happening in the city. The new platform, known as WindyGrid, went live during the NATO summit of 2012, which was held in Chicago.

Although Goldstein was excited by what his group had done with WindyGrid, it was his police murder map that made him particularly proud. But the revolution he had tried to start at the Chicago Police Department did not evolve as he had hoped. After Goldstein and Weis left the department in 2011, the predictive analytics program was partly wound down. To a certain extent, the project was a casualty of political infighting and budget cuts. But what made the experiment doubly vulnerable was an issue that has long haunted Chicago’s political scene: race. The people running the CPD were overwhelmingly white. But Goldstein’s charts tended to predict that murders would happen in African American or Latino districts. Goldstein and Weis vehemently denied that this pattern was driven by any racial agenda; their map simply reflected the homicides that were actually occurring and used this data to issue statistical predictions of where murders might occur next. But in a city such as Chicago, race was a very sensitive issue, even – or especially – when viewed through the prism of numbers. 

Goldstein tried to look on the bright side. He could see signs that the seed he had planted was growing in more fertile soil elsewhere. Just as the CPD was shuttering the program, other forces started to pursue similar experiments. The Los Angeles Police Department created a predictive analytics capability similar to the one Goldstein had built. The police in Memphis, Tennessee, did the same, and quickly became a leader in the field. When riots broke out in London in 2012, the police there started using the same techniques to respond to British gangs. By 2014, Goldstein and Weis were being asked to share their ideas with police departments all over the world.

When Goldstein had decided back in 2001 to change his career, he had dreamed of changing the world. Now, at the age of 40, he had come to realize that you do not need to start a revolution to make a difference. Just shifting the dial a few inches matters too. The experiment in Chicago might not have transformed the police, but it had showed what could be achieved if somebody was willing to take a gamble and jump out of their cozy mental box. “I am not looking to solve the big problems in life,” Goldstein said. “I’m completely fine with solving lots of small problems. It’s small things that can make places better.”

It was a message he hoped to keep spreading when he left City Hall for the University of Chicago in 2014. In his current role as senior fellow in urban science at the Harris School of Public Policy, where he teaches classes on how to help governments use data more effectively, he hopes to convince some of the most promising young computer scientists to jump across boundaries and silos. Before Goldstein came to Harris, most of the young tech geeks he met dreamed of being the next Mark Zuckerberg, working in glamorous freewheeling startups. To them, the idea of working for government of any sort was anathema. But at Harris, Goldstein is trying to change this perception. “We need to get more technology people into government,” he says. “So I try to tell the students to think of doing something different.” 

—Gillian Tett


Gillian Tett is the US managing editor and columnist at The Financial Times. She is the author, most recently, of The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers, from which this article is adapted. Copyright © 2015 by Middelsex Sound and Vision. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.