(Header: Presentation screenshot from Team Friskers’ presentation at Hack for Democracy.)
“Hackathons have a fundamental problem—and I love hackathons—but it’s really hard to come away with code that you can use in a manner that’s productive after the hackathon’s over.” – Nasser Eledroos, Team Friskers
On April 21-22, five teams used publicly available data to solve problems civic organizations face in visualizing police data, registering voters, and promoting civic education. MIT GOV/LAB connected the American Civil Liberties Union, Let America Vote, and Generation Citizen with students and professionals from the Greater Boston area for our inaugural We the People / Hack for Democracy to promote the American (and human) values of fairness, openness, and equality.
All of the teams did an amazing job (and you can check out their projects on hackfordemocracy.org and the Hack for Democracy Github page), but our judges ultimately selected Team Friskers as the winners. Their project, a digital and physical marketing campaign, was not only effective, but also well-positioned to make an immediate impact on the issue of stop-and-frisk policing. I sat down with Nasser Eledroos and Will Millar of Team Friskers to learn more about their project, the problem of unsubstantiated policing, and their plans for the future.
Team Friskers and unsubstantiated policing
Team Friskers—Eledroos and Millar, along with Andrew Schneer, Lucy Qin, and Jenn Sloboda—represented a diversity of backgrounds, with day jobs ranging from the PillPack (a home-delivery pharmacy) to MIT Lincoln Labs to the ACLU. Together, they developed the Stop Frisking Me project to create empathy and raise awareness about what they call “unsubstantiated policing.” Using publicly available data from the City of Boston on Field Interrogation and Observation (or FIO stops, commonly known as stop-and-frisk) and a report by Boston Police and the ACLU of Massachusetts, the team identified a pattern wherein minorities were simultaneously more likely to be stopped, but less likely to be caught with contraband. (You can read a summary of the report here).
According to the team’s research, black people comprise 63% of FIO stops despite being only 24% of the city’s population. (For reference, white people make up about 54% of the population, but make up only 28% of all stops.) Furthermore, police find contraband on white people at twice the rate of blacks and Hispanics. This higher rate of searches—seemingly in spite of the evidence—leads the team to believe that such policing mechanisms are unsubstantiated, while the targeting of specific communities leaves many others in the dark about what’s going on in their city.
Millar theorizes that “maybe the police find contraband at twice the rate because they’re showing greater discretion in suspicion when they see a white person.” Furthermore, the vague term “Investigate Person” was given as the reason for 75% of all FIO stops. Of these, over 60% of those stopped were black, further reinforcing the team’s idea that such stops are unsubstantiated.
“Why is it that police are somehow so great at knowing which white people to search?” – Will Millar, Team Friskers
Team friskers’ discovery that the police are more likely to stop those less likely to have contraband suggests to them that something is wrong with how the police implement FIO stops. The team can only theorize on why such a discrepancy exists, but they are concerned that the over-policing of certain minority groups erodes their sense of dignity and contributes to a lasting mistrust in the police force.
To raise awareness of this issue, the group considered creating complex mapping and web visualization tools to raise awareness, but ultimately decided against them, as they wanted their project to be both personal and readily accessible to the public. “All this data that we were sourcing from is already publicly available,” said Eledroos. “The problem is it’s not in an easily-digestible, easily-communicable format. You really have to go deep into the data.”
This was their main challenge. They needed to figure out how to educate a broad audience on the realities of stop-and-frisk and generate empathy for those affected, all while not trivializing the experiences of those stopped and frisked by police.
Stop Frisking Me
Stop Frisking Me is a two-part campaign. The first part is a provocative physical marketing campaign designed to pique interest in the general public. Stickers, like the one below, would be posted around the city inviting people to engage the SMS or twitter platforms to learn more about police behavior.
The text messaging and twitter bots then communicate the stories of police encounters in slightly different ways. If you text the number on the sticker, you can opt in to receive a daily text with the information about a person who was stopped that day. In sending only one story per day, the team hoped to encourage people to focus on the individuals affected and not just about the statistics. Eledroos says “it’s about validating the experiences of one person and how each person affected by this deserves a voice.
On Twitter, Team Friskers drew inspiration from a New York City based account (@stopandfrisk) that uses historical data to report on police encounters in “real time”. For example, if two years ago Boston police encountered a 23-year-old black man in Mattapan at 4:23 pm, the twitter bot would tweet out the details of the encounter today at 4:23 pm. By tweeting out every instance of an FIO stop, the team hoped that others would gain an appreciation for the sheer number of FIO stops carried out on any given day.
A call to action and next steps
One problem that the judges had was the lack of a clear call to action. Team Friskers agreed. “That is the part of the project that needs the most fleshing out,” Millar said. They hope that the public will, through phone calls and town halls, put pressure on policymakers to change the way police practices are implemented and encourage the police to make better quality data available.
“Getting people involved is a big step, but making them aware is the first step.” – Nasser Eledroos, Team Friskers
Building on the code developed at the Hack 4 Democracy, Nasser (a Technology Fellow at the ACLU of Massachusetts) is working to create a campaign to raise awareness about police stop-and-frisk activities in the City of Boston. Will also does some design work with the ACLU and plans to be involved in the project as it moves forward. While the campaign is not yet operational, you can follow @ACLU_Mass on Twitter to stay updated on Team Friskers’ work. You can also check out all the other team’s presentations, as well as presentations by the partner organizations, at hackfordemocracy.org.