Data's dividends

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Curbing Gang Violence on the Toughest Turf: Facebook

Members of street gangs have been insulting and threatening one another with increasing frequency on Facebook and Twitter, a trend that law-enforcement officials say is contributing to a surge of gang-related violence in US cities. Desmond Patton, a Columbia assistant professor of social work, is determined to fight the trend using big data. This past spring, he teamed up with computer scientists at MIT and social workers at the YMCA of Chicago to create a software application that will detect when violent threats appear in publicly shared Facebook or Twitter posts in the Chicago area. As soon as a threat is posted, the application will alert local social workers so that they can try to track down the involved parties and defuse the situation.

“A lot of gang violence is committed by kids as young as fourteen or fifteen who, because of peer pressure, may find themselves in situations where they feel they have no choice but to assault or shoot someone,” says Patton, who has been working with disadvantaged youths on the streets of Chicago for more than a decade. “If we can intervene quickly, we might be able to change their minds.”

“Having a large data set enabled us to home in on the precise question we wanted to answer: did democracy pay off, on average?”

Designing a computer program that is capable of identifying credible threats from among the millions of new Facebook and Twitter messages posted daily in a major city like Chicago requires an intimate knowledge of gang members’ communication styles. Patton is an expert on the topic; over the past two years, he has interviewed dozens of current and former Chicago gang members about the codes they use to signal their intention to harm someone. He has learned, for example, that serious threats often contain the street address of a targeted person — typically with the name of the street spelled backwards — and a photograph of the person flipped upside down.

“We’ve tried to catalogue these types of contextual clues so that the software will distinguish between a real threat and, say, a quoted rap lyric,” he says.

A team of MIT researchers led by Henry Lieberman will soon integrate Patton’s findings into a text-analysis program to be used in Chicago on a trial basis. Patton and Lieberman say that if their tool helps to curb violence there, it could be adapted for other cities.

Does Democracy Pay?

Some economists say that poor countries are likelier to achieve prosperity under dictators than democratically elected leaders. Elected officials, they argue, are unable to act fast in crises, to implement unpopular reforms that may be necessary for long-term growth, or to resist signing off on partisan pork-barrel projects.

To test this theory, an interdisciplinary team of Columbia, MIT, and University of Chicago researchers analyzed a large set of economic and political data for 175 countries, covering the period 1960 to 2010. Their results, published recently in a white paper on the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research, suggest that democracy isn’t bad for business at all. In fact, the researchers found that countries that transitioned from an autocratic form of government to democracy achieved a 20 percent higher GDP per capita, on average, in the following twenty-five years. One potential explanation, they say, is that democracies invest more money in education and health care — a fact established by several previous studies — and thereby help their citizens to be productive.

“These investments appear to more than offset any inefficiencies that democracy can theoretically engender — like wealth redistribution and political gridlock,” says Suresh Naidu, a Columbia assistant professor of economics who worked on the study.

Naidu and his collaborators say that by analyzing the development trajectories of all the world’s countries over a long period, they were able to control for variables that have distorted the results of previous, smaller studies. For example, they were able to account for the temporary dips in GDP that countries usually experience when transitioning from one form of government to another; they also controlled for the fact that poorer nations tend to grow quickly, whereas countries further along the path to prosperity tend to grow more slowly.

“Having a large data set enabled us to home in on the precise question we wanted to answer: did democracy pay off, on average?” says Naidu. “In almost every case, we found that it did, big time.”

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