Crowdsourcing Gun Violence Research

Penn Engineering: “Gun violence is often described as an epidemic, but as visible and shocking as shooting incidents are, epidemiologists who study that particular source of mortality have a hard time tracking them. The Centers for Disease Control is prohibited by federal law from conducting gun violence research, so there is little in the way of centralized infrastructure to monitor where, how,when, why and to whom shootings occur.

Chris Callison-Burch, Aravind K.Joshi Term Assistant Professor in Computer and InformationScience, and graduate studentEllie Pavlick are working to solve this problem.

They have developed the GunViolence Database, which combines machine learning and crowdsourcing techniques to produce a national registry of shooting incidents. Callison-Burch and Pavlick’s algorithm scans thousands of articles from local newspaper and television stations,determines which are about gun violence, then asks everyday people to pullout vital statistics from those articles, compiling that information into a unified, open database.

For natural language processing experts like Callison-Burch and Pavlick, the most exciting prospect of this effort is that it is training computer systems to do this kind of analysis automatically. They recently presented their work on that front at Bloomberg’s Data for Good Exchange conference.

The Gun Violence Database project started in 2014, when it became the centerpiece of Callison-Burch’s “Crowdsourcing and Human Computation”class. There, Pavlick developed a series of homework assignments that challenged undergraduates to develop a classifier that could tell whether a given news article was about a shooting incident.

“It allowed us to teach the things we want students to learn about datascience and natural language processing, while giving them the motivation to do a project that could contribute to the greater good,” says Callison-Burch.

The articles students used to train their classifiers were sourced from “TheGun Report,” a daily blog from New York Times reporters that attempted to catalog shootings from around the country in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. Realizing that their algorithmic approach could be scaled up to automate what the Times’ reporters were attempting, the researchers began exploring how such a database could work. They consulted with DouglasWiebe, a Associate Professor of Epidemiology in Biostatistics andEpidemiology in the Perelman School of Medicine, to learn more about what kind of information public health researchers needed to better study gun violence on a societal scale.

From there, the researchers enlisted people to annotate the articles their classifier found, connecting with them through Mechanical Turk, Amazon’scrowdsourcing platform, and their own website,…(More)”