USC Spatial Sciences students harness open data to analyze crime patterns in L.A.
Undergraduate Richard Windisch presents data from a crime-related research project he participated in to members of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office and other city officials. Photos by Mike Glier.

USC Spatial Sciences students harness open data to analyze crime patterns in L.A.

Analyzing location-based data from Los Angeles’ GeoHub allows the researchers to visualize where violent crimes are concentrated in the city and how data can drive solutions.
ByLaura Paisley

When the mayor of Los Angeles considers the potential of your research on crime data and public safety so valuable that he invites you to work with his team, it’s pretty exciting. Especially when you’re an undergraduate.

On Dec. 15, six students, postdoctoral research associate Noli Brazil and GIS project specialist Beau MacDonald from USC Dornsife’s Spatial Sciences Institute (SSI) had the opportunity to present the findings of the applied research they had undertaken for Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Data Team and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Their project, initiated during the Fall 2016 semester, is called “A Spatial Analysis of Street-level Crime Trends in Los Angeles.”

Using data from GeoHub — Los Angeles’ new public platform for exploring and visualizing location-based open data — the student researchers created a mapping application that brought together data about crime occurrences with social and built-environment characteristics. They incorporated variables such as unemployment rates, the presence or absence of street lights, and proximity to metro rail and bus stops. The team then examined this visualized data as it applies to specific street segments.

In their presentation, the SSI team shared their analysis, which underscored the importance of connecting place and space to improve public safety and demonstrated how their mapping application can uncover important patterns of crime. This street segment approach will help city leaders understand where and when crime is actually occurring, so that city resources, such as patrol units or street lighting, could be deployed more effectively.

For example, if the number of crime incidents reported in one location from one year to another remained constant, one might conclude that there has not been an increase nor a decrease in crime there. Using the analytical tools of the USC mapping application, however, viewers can see patterns of the particular times of days and days in the week when and where the types of crime are occurring, set in the context of street information, such as the presence of a school, park, community center, or liquor store. With this more specific information, law enforcement and community services could tailor the deployment of their resources to reduce crime.

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Postdoctoral Research Associate Noli Brazil, who has researched crime and socioeconomic policy extensively, led the research team.

Presentation attendees included Lilian Coral, chief data officer for Mayor Garcetti; Sari Ladin, data fellow for the mayor; Brian Buchner, Mayor Garcetti’s policy director for public safety; and Arnold Suzukamo, a geographic information system (GIS) specialist with LAPD.

“We were so impressed with the high quality of work that the Spatial Sciences Institute has done. They have brought us an innovative approach that will be tremendously useful as the Mayor’s office, LAPD and other city stakeholders work to develop policies and strategies to improve community safety,” Buchner said. “Their mapping application is an important addition to our toolbox that directly supports the Mayor’s emphasis on making data-driven decisions, and we are looking forward to continuing our work with SSI, its faculty and students.”

Coral said that academic institutions are a core part of every community and she was pleased to be able to partner with USC for the project.

“In our collaboration with the Spatial Sciences Institute, we were looking to test a partnership that mirrored the pace of City Hall and brought the talents and skills of academic staff and students to timely and urgent city challenges like crime,” she said.

“The results have been immensely valuable in providing lessons for how to work with academic institutions to drive real value out of the partnership. They’ve also been eye-opening and innovative in lending a new lens to evaluating crime density and changing trends.”

Student researchers included undergraduates Izzy Mitchell, Richard Windisch, Kyra Schoonover, Robin Franke, Leonard Ngo and spatial informatics master’s student Yuqing Qian. The students were funded by a generous donation from geographic information system company Esri, which was a partner with the City of Los Angeles in constructing the GeoHub portal. They worked under the direction of Brazil, MacDonald and SSI Director John P. Wilson.

Student Rich Windisch, an L.A. native, is a junior majoring in GeoDesign. He relished putting his curriculum-based learning into practice through this project.

“The opportunity to be on this research team and present a semester’s worth of research to city officials and partners was a unique experience and personal accomplishment,” he said. “I was able to see the importance of my degree in spatial sciences and how it can benefit an entire city as well as improve the understanding of Los Angeles’ working parts through the lens of different city departments.”

Windisch is enthusiastic about the potential of data troves like L.A. GeoHub to help cities run more smoothly.

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USC Dornsife senior Izzy Mitchell, a GeoDesign major.

“I truly envision the L.A. GeoHub opening a door to better understand spatio-temporal patterns in crime occurrence, support the ability to better deploy city resources and make policy changes that improve public safety.”

Izzy Mitchell, a senior majoring in GeoDesign and minoring in architecture, agreed that the project has been a very rewarding learning experience that complements the research theory from her major. After graduating this spring, she plans to work in urban design to learn more about the workings and processes of the built environment.

“Ultimately, I hope to work on projects that integrate GIS into more aspects of how cities are managed and used,” she said. “That is partly why this research project in particular was so interesting to me; I see it as an opportunity not only to provide information to City Hall and LAPD about crime trends, but also to create a mapping application that they can continue to use to better inform policing and policy making.”

Getting to present her research to L.A. city professionals and respond to their questions and critique was invaluable in helping her move forward in her goal of creating useful information systems for urban planning and design purposes, Mitchell said.

 “Rich and I are excited to continue working on this project in the spring semester.”