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Northwestern University

Big Data, Big Impact

MMSS students are using their skills to help police departments put a dent in crime

 Have you ever wondered about the placement of police officers while driving through a town — why there was only one police car on one street, for example, and then three on another?

And if you were given the entire bank of data that a police department had on crime and police positioning, would you be able calculate where officers should be at a certain time?

Weinberg College’s Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences program focuses on just those kinds of questions.

“Students in the MMSS program receive the training needed to build and analyze mathematical models,” said Professor William Rogerson, director of the MMSS program. The program allows students gifted in mathematics to explore fields beyond math and science, and prepares them to succeed in graduate study and in a wide variety of careers in the social sciences and business.

Making sense of data

Recently, Police Chief magazine highlighted a group of Northwestern MMSS students who were helping big-city police departments make sense of the massive amounts of data they collect every day.

The partnership was first conceived 17 years ago by lecturer Mark Iris, who was working as executive director of the City of Chicago Police Board while also teaching part-time in Northwestern’s Department of Political Science.

“[Police departments] collect data like crazy,” Iris said. “They collect data on many things you can imagine and many things you cannot. But they don’t have people to make sense of that data.”

But Northwestern, Iris observed, had MMSS students who do need of a lot of data to complete their capstone projects.

So Iris decided to play matchmaker. That was in 1998. Now, every year, he supervises three groups of students who act as consultants for large police departments in cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston and Long Beach.

At the start of the project, the MMSS students visit the police department with which they have been paired. There, they receive their research questions and corresponding data. After several months of analysis and calculation, they return to the police department and give a presentation on their findings to the police command staff.

A long-term impact

For past participant JohnPatrick McCleary ’14, the experience of gathering and then presenting data proved key to landing him his first post-graduation job as a financial analyst.

“Many police departments look for smart graduates to hire in their crime analytics departments because of the vast amounts of data they record and the student’s ability to put it to good use,” McCleary said. “They also look for the ability to deliver research results in a coherent matter, so an audience can comprehend your methods. That ability is essential to any career.”

Ultimately, the projects that Northwestern MMSS students perform for the police departments have a long-term, real-life impact. Iris oberves that they may even have prevented a few crimes or saved a life.

“These projects are not of theoretical interest,” Iris said. “These students are providing a public service, which is a good thing to do.”

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