UChicago Crime Lab’s Violence Reduction Dashboard provides unprecedented data on violence in near-real-time to anyone with internet access. Outreach organizations and media outlets are embracing it to stop violence and drive accountability.

In 2016, Chicago was enduring a 60 percent increase in homicides, a level of violence the city hadn’t experienced for two decades.

With help from UChicago’s Crime Lab, the Chicago Police Department launched Strategic Decision Support Centers—a management strategy that integrated data analysis and additional technology—to help district leaders more effectively deploy existing resources in the districts experiencing the highest rates of gun violence.

At about the same time, community organizations, funders, individuals, and civic institutions—including the Crime Lab—mobilized to come up quickly with a new, comprehensive approach to public safety. The Lab’s response, in part, was to create and distribute maps to about 30 violence prevention organizations and foundations, using the same data from the SDSCs, to assist the social service response to shootings and homicides.

The Violence Reduction Dashboard includes many opportunities to scour data in almost real time.

Those electronic maps were an early version of what is today the Violence Reduction Dashboard, the nation’s leading tool offering unprecedented transparency and specificity on violence data in near-real-time, information that is available to anyone with internet access.

Launched in May 2021, when Chicago was again enduring a surge in gun violence, the Dashboard was a partnership between the Crime Lab—now housed at the Harris School of Public Policy—and the City of Chicago.

No other major city offers the Dashboard’s level of data on violence—data which includes homicides, non-fatal shootings, criminal sexual assaults, robberies, and carjackings. Among its most important features is that it allows the public to view city violence trends data by date, geographic region, and victim type.

The Dashboard is the Lab’s latest attempt to increase the accessibility of data to broaden understanding of one of Chicago’s most pressing challenges.

“It’s definitely been a useful tool,” said Steven Perkins, director of field instruction at Metropolitan Family Services, which provides an array of support to historically disadvantaged people in the Chicago area. He oversees the organization’s field managers working to reduce violence in 22 communities in the city.

Perkins said his field managers and organizations frequently tap into the Dashboard, often on mobile phones, to obtain updated information on violence hot spots. The violence prevention advocates use the information to quickly distribute limited resources, he added.

“If we’re going to reduce violence, the most important thing we need to know is what the numbers are,” Perkins said. “The Dashboard affords us that opportunity.”

Illuminating the safety gap

In designing and developing the Dashboard, the Crime Lab incorporated input from Metropolitan Family Services, other community-level street outreach organizations, victim services providers, advocates, and representatives of city agencies and departments.

“We made sure that input was brought in as early as possible to make the Dashboard as actionable and useful as it could be,” said Zach Honoroff, MPP`16, Associate Director of Violence Reduction Services at the Crime Lab and Education Lab.

That feature makes it easier for community organizations, residents, businesses, and other entities to advocate for resources and hold elected officials accountable, Honoroff said.

The Dashboard also has proven valuable in detailing Chicago’s particularly large safety gap—violent crime rates that differ from one community to another, said Kim Smith, Director of Programs at the Crime Lab and Education Lab.

“We thought it was important for the public to be able to see how the burden of gun violence is borne disproportionately by certain communities,” she added. Chicago has a history of distributing resources not necessarily according to need, but to politics, often leaving marginalized or more violent neighborhoods with insufficient services to solve challenges.

“The fact that we’re visualizing the safety gap in this way is a very unique feature,” Smith said, “In the same way that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there were calls to use data to highlight the ways in which resources should be allocated to mitigate harm and save lives, we think the same approach is fundamental to the violence prevention and criminal justice reform efforts we undertake at the Crime Lab.”  

Insight for researchers

In addition to making important data on violence widely accessible, the specificity of the data—it can be filtered to an hour of the day and street address—is the crucial characteristic for MFS and other outreach organizations, said Kelsy Heinze, MAPSS`13, Senior Data Analyst at Metropolitan Family Services.

“I think the big win is that before May 2021, a tool that can easily summarize and analyze a large data set like this did not exist,” he said. The Dashboard’s near-real-time calculations, analyses, and visualizations would have consumed a great deal of manpower and hours, which left some outreach organizations to use their intuition when deciding how to respond to violence, Heinze said.

“Now, literally anybody can access this data,” he said. “That’s something outreach teams have been able to utilize to literally ask, ‘When do we need our guys to be mobilized on the streets?’”

It may be too early to determine if the use of the Dashboard, which was turned over to the city to manage in January 2022, has led to a reduction in violence, he said. But rolling averages harvested from Dashboard data for early 2022 indicate that violence was lower in the city compared to early 2021.

“The Dashboard has given us a way to reshape how we think about violence trends,” Heinze said. “That’s a big success in my opinion.”

Beyond the easily accessible analyses and summaries, the Dashboard’s underlying raw data is also available via the City’s Open Data Portal. That feature will prove valuable for a variety of long-term or in-depth projects, particularly among researchers and others with more expertise in using data, Heinze and Smith said.

Informing the public conversation on violence

Jens Ludwig

That initiative is part of the Crime Lab’s ongoing work to make data and research more accessible to the public, policymakers, and media communities.

Another recent example of the Crime Lab’s data transparency efforts is a data journalism partnership with the Chicago Tribune. In his “Data Points” series, Jens Ludwig, Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor at Harris and Pritzker Director of the Crime Lab, provides data analysis to contextualize contentious topics such as carjackings and illegal gun carrying in Chicago.

“These are some of the most important and difficult policy questions facing cities. A lot of the public debate is, unfortunately, people talking past each other because no one knows the facts, and that’s because the data haven’t been accessible to the public,” Ludwig said, “We’re trying to help fix that. As the late Senator Daniel Moynihan used to say, everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”

Where possible, the pieces include access to raw data or detailed technical appendices, Smith added, to provide readers with more data context. Smith noted that the Lab’s 24-page appendix to Ludwig’s op-ed on carjackings led to numerous follow-up conversations with media and other researchers about the nature of youth involvement in carjackings and the limits of available data.

“We’ve been surprised by the extent to which the supplemental data has been referenced and cited by others,” she said. “It’s another example of why it’s so important to push out this type of information.”

The Dashboard also has proven to be valuable to Chicago media outlets, which frequently use it and work with Smith and Honoroff to dig deeper into the numbers.

“When we noticed, within a couple months of the launch, members of the media using the Dashboard to hold government to account, it was really exciting,” Honoroff said. “And since then, we’ve seen lots of other examples of folks in the media citing the Dashboard, pulling graphics up from the Dashboard, using it regularly to update the data they source in their articles.

“It’s only gotten more ubiquitous,” he said. “And we’re hoping that continues.”