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How Big Data failed Baltimore

What would society look like if Freddie Gray were born in a city that valued human life over bricks and mortar, metrics and measurement?
Gyalwang Drukpa, a Buddhist leader from South Asia, prays in front of a mural of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Md., May 7, 2015. (Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Gyalwang Drukpa, a Buddhist leader from South Asia, prays in front of a mural of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Md., May 7, 2015. 

In the days following the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who sustained a fatal spinal injury in Baltimore police custody, I was taken back to my time in Baltimore, at the height of America's "tough on crime" era. 

I arrived in the city in 1999 as a federal employee, sent to the city health department to support a crumbling local public health infrastructure. I had a deep sense that I wanted to fight the good fight, but at 27 years old -- just two years older than Freddie Gray -- I had little understanding of what that meant. No sooner had I arrived in Charm City than the Baltimore Sun broke the story that would shape my years there. The headline went something like this: Baltimore’s children are canaries in a coalmine: City does little to combat child lead poisoning.

No one could have known it then but Freddie Gray, who would have been about 10 years old at the time, was one of those poisoned kids in Sandtown-Winchester.'

Like other post-industrial cities, Baltimore’s famous row houses were riddled with the stealthy neurotoxin. Deceptively sweet like manna from heaven, lead paint permanently rewired the developing minds of kids in East and West Baltimore who ate the dulcet chips and breathed in their dust. In the poorest neighborhoods, kids moved from leaded-home to leaded-home as their families were evicted, fathers incarcerated, mothers fended for themselves.

Of course, violence, drug-addiction and despair were common. At the time, one in eight Baltimore residents were addicted to heroin, the evidence of which could be found near City Hall where “poppers,” the small needles long-time addicts used to inject the drug just under the skin on their hands, could be found all over the sidewalks and alleys. The dominant narrative confirmed that the city traded in despair: HBO's "The Corner" aired in 2000 and "The Wire" followed two years later.

Measuring misery

In the winter of 2000, the visionary leader of the city health department, Dr. Peter Beilenson, implemented a comprehensive strategy to combat lead poisoning by adapting CompStat from the New York City Police Department. The crime-fighting approach was born of the now-refuted broken windows theory and implemented with a rabid, naïve fervor by then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley. While CompStat employed the particular logic of measurement to track crime and police effectiveness, LeadStat relied on similar mapping technology and was based on the same theory: that constant evaluation would yield quantifiable improvements.

Unwittingly, we slipped down the rabbit hole of measuring complicated social problems with simplistic counts: violent crimes down; arrests up; new lead poisonings up. But what was the story behind the numbers? Was the city really improving the conditions for people living in Baltimore or were we just getting better at measuring misery?

But it was sexy. LeadStat used maps to visualize what everyone knew intuitively: that all Baltimore's problems converged in a few neighborhoods -- parts of the city where poverty, drug addiction, sex work, hunger, joblessness, and despair overlapped. When the locations of lead-poisoned children were geo-coded, the maps lit up like Christmas trees on the same streets where we saw high rates of intravenous drug use, HIV, child protective service involvement, and homelessness.

No one could have known it then but Freddie Gray, who would have been about 10 years old at the time, was one of those poisoned kids in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood: a neighborhood that lit up our maps every month of the year.

Slow progress

In spite of the Health Department’s best efforts, lead -- and its delivery mechanisms, structural racism and urban disinvestment -- proved a formidable opponent. It silently invades the brain, slowly re-configuring the circuitry, leading to learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders, and reduced IQ. The CDC notes that there is likely no safe level of lead exposure for a child under 6 years of age. Any exposure may cause permanent damage. For a black child living in Sandtown-Winchester, attending underfunded, under-functioning schools, lead poisoning may end up being the icing on the cake: a one-way ticket to prison or worse.

RELATED: Scenes from occupied Baltimore

To deal with the complexities of the issue, the health department at the time organized a systematic anti-lead poisoning task force to improve data on poisonings; improve coordination between city departments dealing with lead violations in housing court; and introduce a city ordinance and state law requiring children to be screened for lead poisoning at one and two years of age before the damage was too far gone. For the first time, the Health and Housing Departments worked together to ensure landlords were responsible for abating lead in their properties and that children did not cycle from one lead-riddled home to another, only to end up with a younger sibling poisoned after them.  

Everyone knew it was an uphill battle but the stakes were too high not to keep trying. In 2001, the State of Maryland passed House Bill 1221, legislation that required all children be tested for lead well before they entered the school system. A similar ordinance passed the Baltimore City Council not long after.

Tough on crime

Now, 15 years and a doctorate degree later, I am still incredibly proud of our efforts to ameliorate lead poisoning in Baltimore City. But, in retrospect, we should be deeply troubled by our tunnel vision when it came to the potential misuse of decontextualized data. It is clear to me now that my committed Health Department colleagues and I couldn’t comprehend that, as we measured our progress combating lead poisoning, substance abuse, and HIV, Mayor O’Malley’s CompStat also swept thousands of Baltimore residents into the penal system. 

More and more we seem to have it backward: We’re asking small questions of big data and wondering why we keep coming up short.'

O’Malley was not alone. He crafted himself in the image of Bill Clinton and other New Democrats espousing neo-liberal economic and social policies that were “tough on crime” and even tougher on the poor themselves. Urban mayors like O’Malley had to take their cities back from the “welfare cheats” and “drug addicts” that compounded Baltimore’s post-industrial decline.

Against this backdrop, wiping out crime, and drawing more people to the city to increase the tax base, was imperative. With complex problems and a short time frame to solve them, O’Malley probably thought CompStat was the way out -- never mind the collateral damage to the city's Freddie Grays.

RELATED: Justice Department to investigate Baltimore police

At the time, O’Malley was viewed as reviving the Inner Harbor and reinvigorating the tax base, metaphorically using the boats in Fells Point to lift all the others in Reservoir Hill. Looking back, that public safety and economic development approach was built on the back of a carceral state. As for CompStat, my colleagues lived in fear of having to represent the health department at the monthly meetings.

Often, the mayor’s chief of staff led the proceedings in his boss’s absence: “Sarge, why do you have so many open homicides this month? What’s going on with your boys? I think we can do better.” Then later, as questioning moved to the health department: “Why so many new HIV cases? What’s going on? You better get the numbers down. Maybe expand your needle exchange program.” 

How? Funding for the needle exchange program had been on the chopping block for years. There was little in-patient substance abuse treatment available and the waiting lists were months or even years long. And, for that matter, how do you "close" homicides? Do you shake more people down on the street? Coerce confessions? Mete out more "rough rides" in the hopes of garnering information? CompStat and LeadStat were designed to measure our way out of long-standing urban crises and yet these measurement regimes asked all the wrong questions.

Asking the wrong questions

While CompStat and its look-alike programs may have been well intended, we must not confuse measurement with deep understanding, thorough interpretation, or careful intervention. Baltimore, along with many other American cities, still faces ongoing problems with lead poisoning, poverty, police brutality and mass incarceration. These problems are bigger than individual cities -- they are part of a neo-liberal, globalized economy that emphasizes big data but not the kinds of big solutions that are commensurate with big problems. In fact, more and more we seem to have it backward: We’re asking small questions of big data and wondering why we keep coming up short.

Our problem is not that we need to better parse our questions so they can be answered with more prisons, police body cameras or incremental reform. It's that we lack the political imagination to ask the right questions and tell the right stories. In this moment of momentum -- the convergence of Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, and the growing condemnation of income inequality and mass incarceration -- our collective responsibility is to ask, what would a radically re-imagined, anti-racist, anti-oppressive society look like?

This is our time to tell our stories and ask the questions that lead to the right answers. What would society look like if Freddie Gray -- and Rekia Boyd, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, and others whose names we will never know -- were born in a city that valued human life over bricks and mortar, metrics and measurement?

Tina K. Sacks, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare at University of California-Berkeley.