Big Data Are Reducing Homicides in Cities across the Americas

Oct 15, 2015

Mario Wagner

By Rodrigo Guerrero Velasco

Violence is a big problem in modern society and in cities in particular. Homicides were rampant in my hometown of Cali, Colombia, when I became mayor in 1992. Few people saw murder as a pressing health problem, but I did—probably because I had earned a Ph.D. in epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. I decided to apply the statistical methods used by public health experts to identify the sources of homicide and to reveal social and policy changes that might make a difference.

At the beginning of my first term, the people of Cali and all of Colombia generally believed, mistakenly, that little could be done because we Colombians were “genetically violent.” Other skeptics maintained that violent crime would not diminish unless profound changes were made on socioeconomic issues such as unemployment and educational levels. My administration and I proved all these people wrong.

We developed an epidemiological database about the many societal factors that significantly raised the risk that a homicide would happen. These included sometimes subtle aspects of human behavior, such as the desire to carry guns in certain places or the tendency to drink alcohol on certain days. This exhaustive and fine-grained information led to new laws and policies built on data, not politics.

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