Explainer: St. Louis and Crime Rankings

By Ray Closson via fotocommunity.com

St. Louis Arch, Courthouse, and Kiener Plaza

Poor St. Louis. It always gets such a bad rap when media groups decide to rank cities by crime rate. Unfortunately, it’s also not a well-earned reputation. And criminologists are quite vocal about that. The FBI even publishes this Caution Against Ranking with the statistics each year. You can sum up their lack of context and applicability with comments on the data it comes from (the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports), or the fact that the rankings generalize large, variate cities with a blanket of “dangerous” or “not dangerous,” or that numbers alone provide very little context for a single city’s crime issues. But there’s a specific statistical reason why St. Louis always ends up near the top of these rankings.

Historical Context

St. Louis, the city, was a part of St. Louis County until 1876. At that point, the city seceded from the county. The east border of the city is the Mississippi River, the west border extends northeast from the left-hand edge of Forest Park, north to a point ending at Interstate 270, and south to past the intersection of Interstates 44 and 55. The rest of “St. Louis” is part of the county.

The population of St. Louis city is 320,454 people, according to the 2011 UCR. But that is not the number of people who work and do business in the city. Aside from the usual population of tourists found in any large city, St. Louisans often live in the county but work in the numerous public services, hospitals, tourist attractions, and schools of the city. That’s because the metropolitan area of St. Louis continued to expand well after the secession of the city from the county. With space running out in the city, housing and communities were built in the counties, and to this day those are considered the safer, more family-friendly areas to live. Unfortunately, it’s hard to measure the number of people who work in a city–the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests in non-seasonally adjusted figures for 2011 that 1,295,000 people were employed in “St. Louis, MO-IL.” I’m not sure why Illinois is included in this number, because once you cross the river, you’re in Illinois and East St. Louis, which is a different city entirely (for the record, East St. Louis has a population of 27,087; the city experienced 1,627 reported violent crimes and 2,176 reported property crimes in 2011. For future reference, that’s 140 incidents per 1,000 residents).

Assuming that a simple majority of those 1.295 million workers are employed in the city, it’s easy to see that St. Louis’ population fluctuates broadly every workday. Residents like myself will tell you as much: on weekends and after 5 PM every day, the city is a bit of a ghost town except near the sports centers and tourist areas.

The numbers that are used to rank St. Louis against other cities with populations greater than 100,000–and which showed St. Louis in the number three spot for 2011–use the 320,454 population number, 5,950 reported violent crimes, and 25,669 reported property crimes. That’s 98.7 incidents per 1,000 residents, but there’s no way to separate crimes against non-residents and measure crime per, say, 1,000 individuals present on an average day within the city limits. (The “per 1,000” device is one used often in criminology to quantify crime relative to population.)

It’s worth mentioning that St. Louis isn’t the only city that suffers from this statistical complication, and also that metropolitan area rankings often rank St. Louis far below the top 10 “high-crime” cities. Here are some more details that should make you think twice before writing a ranking.

Index Crimes and Chicago

The FBI’s UCR includes totals for reported crimes under a grouping known as the index crimes. These are four violent crimes and four property crimes used as benchmarks for change over time: murder, aggravated assault, forcible rape, robbery, grand theft auto, arson, burglary, and larceny. Unfortunately, not all police departments report or tally these in uniform ways. As a result, you can see a little footnote at the bottom of all UCR tables indicating that rape statistics for Chicago and the state of Michigan are not recorded the way that the FBI requests.

Reported and Dark Figures

I preface the number of crimes for each category with the word “reported” because journalists need to keep in mind what the UCR actually measures: complaints to the police. This is not an indication of the number of people arrested or convicted of crimes, or the total number of convictions. While that would make you think that these would be overestimates of quantities of crime, also keep in mind the criminological rule of thumb: only half of all crimes are reported, in general. The other half, the unreported crimes, are referred to as the “dark figure” of crime. The most frequently cited campaign to quantify unreported crimes is the National Crime Victimization Survey, a telephone survey of random residents across the United States about their personal experiences with crime. Because this data is not meant for geographical comparisons and trends, it is tallied on the national level, not by state.

Better Stories with UCR Data

Even if you decide that you really don’t want to do a ranking with UCR data, that doesn’t mean you can’t use the numbers at all. There are some great stories lurking in the data for a local crime reporter that your readers can really use.

  • Assuming that your city’s police departments report crimes the same way year after year, this data is very reliable for measuring city-wide trends. Keep in mind that, nationally, crime rates have declined every year for more than two decades–and no one knows why! It’s the great criminological mystery, so be prepared to see your city’s crime rate has been falling as well.
  • The same report featuring the UCR numbers also features numbers for arrests by region and police employees by region.
  • Add to that numbers for hate crimes and police officer injuries and fatalities. Again, it’s more reliable to frame these in comparison to past and future numbers, not in comparison to other regions or cities.

One more thing to note: these numbers are only as accurate as you are cautious. Review methodologies, footnotes, and editor’s notes before deciding how you want to display the data, to be absolutely certain that you are not misrepresenting the numbers.

(I’ll add that, thankfully, the publication I linked to above for ranking St. Louis third in high-crime cities published this article later the same day to add context and caveats to the data, some of which I mentioned above.)

Sexual Harassment, Bullying, and Construction: My Latest for ENR

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez
It took dozens of sources, hundreds of pages of testimony, 70 real-life court cases, and a whole newsroom, but the payoff was worth it. This week, the Engineering News-Record published a special investigation into abusive workplace behaviors and their swiftly changing legal ramifications–with my byline on it. It’s my first cover feature, and I’ll add that it’s also my favorite thing I’ve ever done.

There’s an interesting mix in here of data-driven journalism, investigative reporting, and crowd-sourced information. With the help of a legal researcher, I broke those 70 civil suits into quantifiable data to measure trends and statistics relating to sexual harassment in the construction industry. What we found, in that data and in related EEOC data was that a relatively high percentage of those cases involved men suing men under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. That eventually led us to bullying, the most recent human resources hot topic in the trades. Title VII does a terrible job of protecting women who have been subjected to abusive work environments, and it does a worse job for men, particularly in the building trades. Judges frequently argue in their decisions that construction is a rough industry known for its uncivil job-site behavior. But in construction, it’s all the more vital for workers to be free of outside pressures and distractions to avoid safety hazards. Are anti-bullying laws the answer?

We found that experts don’t agree on this. Just as many said the laws are necessary as said they are redundant. And since the laws have yet to be enacted in any individual state, we don’t know for sure whether they will bring equal justice or a flood of frivolous lawsuits. The best advice we could come up with: for managers, establish anti-bullying policies to protect yourselves; for workers, don’t be afraid to take up your grievances with management.

Please read my article, as well as the accompanying sidebar and viewpoint, and the article that kicked all of this off in the first place. The paywall closes soon, unfortunately. Let me know what you think in this post’s comments section!

ENR Internship Clips

I’ve been out of New York for two months now (it feels like forever ago!) and working on a freelance basis with ENR while I get settled in St Louis. A summary of what I did this summer seems a bit late, but it’s better than never. Here are the articles that I worked on while I had the pleasure of working with the Record’s editors and reporters.

  • Study: Global Contract Disputes Worth Less, Last Longer, June 5, web only
    This was my first story in the newsroom, regarding a study released by contract dispute consulting firm EC Harris in London. It was my first international reporting experience!
  • Despite Transparency, Dispute Erupts on California Library Project, June 25, web and print
    This story started as a simple look into a new library project in Palo Alto, but grew in scope as my reporting turned up webcams, progress reports, city council meetings, and even the original construction and design contracts. They painted a picture of a public works project burdened with change orders and finger-pointing.
  • How Radisson Hotel Owners Stiffed the Subs in Wisconsin, July 13, web with visualization
    This story was one of my most popular, staying at the #8 spot for most visited page on ENR in July. Viewers stayed an average of four and a half minutes, in part because the story also included an interactive timeline in the body. Incorporating the timeline in ENR’s CMS deserves its own blog post. Happily everything worked out and the timeline application has accompanied more stories since I left.
  • Dramatic Digs Mark Panama Canal Expansion Progress by Aileen Cho and Luke Abaffy, July 23, panorama viewer
    I can’t claim any responsibility for this great story, but the viewing windows for the two panoramic images are an example of problem-solving under deadline. My editors asked if I knew a way to display the complete photos, rather than chopped up or shrunk down to fit our CMS’s built-in photo formats. Looking for a quick solution, I worked out a way to use custom-sized iframes to give readers a closer look.
  • Can Leo Linbeck’s Super PAC Remake Congress?, July 30, web and print with slideshow
    For one of the magazine’s first election season articles, I got to interview a Texas construction titan with his own super PAC. The web version got around 800 distinct visits in its first week. Web analytics showed that 10% of the article’s viewers also visited the slideshow, which contained graphics illustrating political spending in the super PAC’s successful primary races.
  • Judges Overturn Same-Sex Harass Verdict Against Boh Bros., July 31, web and print
    This is a write-up of an appellate court’s decision to reverse a verdict of same-sex sexual harassment, which was originally decided against Boh Bros. In a week, this short article had more than 1000 unique visits. It even touched off a wider data-driven investigation into same-sex sexual harassment suits in the construction industry (also by me).
  • Univ. of Ill. Voids Design Contract After Ethics Review, July 31, web and print
    This article netted 1700 unique visits in one week, with visitors staying an average of two minutes to read about the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana voiding a design contract for fear of the appearance of conflict of interest in the bidding process. The article also got comments, which is exceedingly rare on ENR since new comment regulations were enacted; and on August 2 it appeared in the Architectural Record, ENR’s sister publication.

All but one of the articles are behind paywalls now. If you’re interested in my work, contact me: I can get copies of the stories in PDF form. Thank you for reading!

Data Project: Scraping OSHA Inspections

ScraperWiki's logoOne of the most challenging–yet most rewarding–projects I’ve completed for the Engineering News-Record was the building of a PHP scraper using ScraperWiki. It’s a free service for data liberators to build scrapers in PHP, Ruby, or Python that update automatically and are hosted on ScraperWiki’s servers.

I’ve built a scraper to pull construction industry inspection records from the OSHA database. The resulting dataset records some interesting things: the companies with the most violations, for example.

This was my first time handling PHP. Luckily, there are abundant tutorials and tips available on the ScraperWiki website, and an understanding of another coding language helps.

It stands to be a great resource for ENR and could be valuable for any industry-centered magazine. And I invite anyone to explore the data or use my example to create a scraper for OSHA inspections of a different NAICS code. All you have to do is change the associated NAICS code in the URLs to scrape (23 is construction) and adjust the number of times it scrapes in the loop.

If you have a data set you would like scraped, I can help you build a scraper, or you can send it my way! I’m always looking for new and newsworthy data to mine. Ideal data for an automated scraper is too large to copy and paste and displayed in a uniform format online.

My First Tableau Dashboard

NY bridge GPS graphic

A pretty graphic made with Tableau’s mapping function: every bridge in New York. (Copyright 2012 Erin Richey)

One project on my plate right now involves preparing interactive visualization dashboards for the Engineering News-Record, a publication with which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed interning and continue to work as a freelancer. We’re testing out Tableau as a tool for this project, and I myself have been experimenting with Tableau Public to learn about the platform.

I’ve been attempting to upload my first experiment to WordPress, but it seems the free accounts have no support for iframes or JavaScript embeds. In the meantime, you can see my work-in-progress on my Tumblr, which will probably soon fill up with similar tests and embeds that WordPress doesn’t support.

This is my very first attempt with Tableau Public, and I’m impressed with how easy it is; but I know this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re a Tableau expert, please lend me (and my fellow dataviz novices) some advice on Twitter!

Photography Sample: Orchid Show

I attended the last day of the New York Botanical Garden’s Orchid Show, this year featuring the vertical garden designs of Patrick Blanc. Needless to say, the orchids were gorgeous. I took one of Columbia’s SLRs to get some pictures, and here’s what I got.

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Photography sample: Central Park

Late in the fall semester, our RW1 class had a series of photography lessons with photojournalist John Smock. Our lessons included the use of techniques such as receding perspective, silhouetting and reflections, selective focus, and framing. We used Canon T2-I’s and were essentially allowed to choose our own subjects. I took this as an opportunity to spend a relaxing day in Central Park, which is full of interesting photo opportunities.

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Aggregation posts from New York At Work on Tumblr

As part of our Reporting and Writing 1 assignments in the fall of 2011, our class ran a series of Tumblr sites focused on sectors of the New York economy. I partnered with another student to report on the intricacies of labor in the city on a website we called NY At Work. When the semester ended, I chose to leave the site while Joshua continued to develop it into a more individual project. Now, it is named Labor Economics. My aggregation posts are still available on the site, and they represent the skills and expertise I gained during this crash-course in the economics of working in New York City.

Here are some samples of my work on NY At Work.

  • “ALIGN’s Wal-Mart Study: What is the Cost of Convenience?”
    An analysis of the debate on Wal-Mart’s expansion into New York City and its detractors in organized labor. This post received 107 notes, Tumblr’s proprietary tally of views, likes, and reposts.
  • “Organized Labor Shows Support for OccupyWallStreet”
    Written at the start of the Occupy movement, this post traces the beginning of the partnership between unions and Liberty Plaza in September. This post received 19 notes and was reblogged on Professor Bill Grueskin’s Tumblr page.
  • “For Women, Workplace Relationships are Benefit and Bane”
    I wrote this post after seeing a spate of editorials and blog posts concerning the relationships between women in the workplace and their–often–male superiors. The aggregated content reflects some of the pertinent issues and a few suggested solutions for women who want to advance their careers but see obstacles in their paths. This post received 10 notes.
  • “Labor and Rabbis Team Up Against Kosher Corporations”
    In October, I saw news in Crain’s New York about the tense relationship between two Kosher companies–Flaum Appetizing Corporation and Tnuva Food Industries–and the consumers and religious leaders of Park Slope in Brooklyn. It seemed like an interesting situation that was not receiving much attention in other news outlets, so I used this blog post to examine how the situation was evolving.
  • “The STEM of the Problem”
    This blog post analyzes an AP article about a National Center for Education Statistics report, checks the claims made in the article, and localizes the statistics to the New York level for readers to understand the prevalence of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degrees among black students.

Programmed to Work: Firms Compete for Tech Developers in NYC

//Written for Reporting and Writing 1, edited by Prof. Bill Grueskin.

Kurt Sikora came to New York with no job lined up and no connections to help him get employed. Yet within three months, he found work at two different firms with hardly any time between gigs.

He owes his luck partly to his field of expertise. As a web developer, he and his skill set are in high demand in the city’s booming tech industry. Other sector insiders agree: while many workers outside of information technology are fighting for positions, “technologists” with programming expertise are the object of competition between employers.

What does it take to be a sought-after developer in the city? Sikora says, “A lot of what I’ve seen in New York is, you need to be an expert in one certain field,” although his abilities encompass several aspects of digital design. The first job he landed in New York dealt with CSS and HTML; the one he is at now requires more work with Flash.

Although his web skills are helping him stay in business, Sikora’s entrance to the industry was unconventional. He began in Cleveland, Ohio, making fliers for his band, utilizing his degree in graphic design from a community college. Those fliers attracted graphic design jobs from local music venues, and Sikora eventually founded a freelance venture called Studio Siks, Inc., to create promotional materials. His work then pivoted to web development, using skills he taught himself through tutorials and experimentation. “I knew, moving here, it wasn’t going to be easy,” he says about the transition to New York. He spends a lot of his time each week looking at job listings, signing up with freelance placement agencies, revising his resume, and sending it out to potential employers. But many people who look for work as devotedly as him don’t receive as many job offers.

Experienced web developers in the city see a different job market from most. According to Ryan Brogan, a Principal of Magnet Agency—which helps connect developers to firms in New York—“Players don’t have to go out and find jobs”; instead, the jobs find them.

Brogan has been recruiting tech and media talent for Time Warner, MTV Networks, and other big names for 10 years, and he continues to do so as founder and CEO of Magnet Agency. Recently, he advertised for developers to join the staff of IvyDate, a site for singles who attended prestigious colleges. The perfect candidate, Brogan says, has been hard to find: “The only time you’re going to find someone online… I mean, it’s like a needle in a haystack chance.” But he expected as much considering the medium. In his experience, “99 percent of the people who apply for the job are unqualified… That’s the typical response you’re getting when you put something online.”

The ideal applicant cannot be defined by metrics like work history or educational degree. Brogan is looking for someone with leadership experience and the right programming talent. Candidates at the top of his list know about user experience and interface design. “What makes money on the social web? That’s the place to look,” he says. “People who are strong in social media marketing, who are strong in product development, who have international experience,” and who can utilize advertising technology, digital media, and monetization on the web will never go long without work: Brogan defines them as “knowledge workers, not skilled labor.”

Bob Troia with Affinitive, a social marketing and promotion firm, is searching for a developer fluent in the PHP programming language—and he agrees that not every candidate has the same chance in the field. “The best developers are either happily employed full-time or prefer to work on a freelance basis, where they can pick and choose the projects they want to work on. So, it comes down to a hiring company proving [sic] a great environment and great projects where a developer has an opportunity to innovate.” Companies have to woo high-quality developers with benefits, an exciting project, a strong executive team, and equity, according to Brogan.

Unfortunately, supply of these desirable developers is tight. Brogan estimates that out of the 20,000 working developers in the city, 2,000 are highly experienced and between 100 and 200 are available for work at a given time. For the remaining pool of candidates, the tech sector is as cutthroat as any other industry, facing layoffs and outsourcing.

Every year, more of these novice developers join the workforce as they graduate from computer science programs around the city. At the New York Institute of Technology, around 290 students graduated from the School of Engineering and Computer Science in May and joined the labor force. An alumni survey indicates that 35 percent of the graduates had jobs lined up before they left school, although Charlene DeGregoria, Director of NYIT’s Office of Career Services, warns that the graduates may not be working in their sector or may find themselves underemployed for several years after graduation.

DeGregoria happily points out success stories, though, and advises students that getting involved is the key to employment after the computer science program: “If you’ve done the right things, which means you didn’t just come to class, but you did internships, you networked, you joined professional organizations, you got involved with things—you have a story, in other words—you have experience and you met people, those are the students who are more likely to be picked up.”

In the meantime, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is attempting to boost the tech sector in New York by planning a brand new engineering campus in Manhattan, a move that has earned him both praise and criticism. DeGregoria thinks it will help develop New York’s existing tech workforce, although Bloomberg has irritated local colleges by looking to more distant schools for proposals.

Kurt Sikora feels confident that he will be steadily employed for the near future, and he offers this advise to students and developers alike: “Learn as much as you possibly can about different things that you think you might use, in the field that you want to do.” Knowledge about different aspects of web development and how they work together is the key to finding a job, he says, no matter how the market changes in months to come.

Video Sample: Pasticceria Rocco’s

Rocco’s is one of the few small family-owned businesses in New York, a successful bakery in Greenwich Village. It was passed down to three siblings from their father, who had owned the bakery since 1974. Today, the owners are uncertain whether they can maintain the family-ownership tradition.

In this video, Rocco Jr. describes working with his dad, and running the kitchen on the first holiday without him.

Passing Down the Recipe for Success from Erin Richey on Vimeo.