Monday, April 12, 2010 - By Ben Berkowitz - 6 comments

Solving neighborhood violence with technology?

The recent spate of violence in the Newhallville and Dixwell neighborhoods of New Haven is reminiscent of my childhood here in the early 90's. Some of the 8 murder victims of the last weeks are my peers. Late 20's early 30's gang members out of prison out and looking to regain control of their neighborhoods. Last Saturday evening police flooded the neighborhood to try and curb the violence with 15 extra units. They left the neighborhood at 3:00 am. At 4:00 Am two men were shot to death.

On the other side of this 120,000 person town you would not know that there was a "crisis level" turf war occurring right unless of course you read the local news. The comments section of both and are filled with comments from residents feeling helpless and sending their sympathies to families of the victims to people feeling righteous in their decision to live in the suburbs. I can't help but think that , despite some of the truly nasty and insensitive comments on these forums, having a place for people to express their true feelings on local tragedy is important.

Having a good forum for expressing our concerns might actually be the the first technical implementation of a solution. As someone who has seen communities solve problems with technology and social enterprise I find myself looking to this situation and wondering if there are others modern solutions that did not exist when I was growing up in the 90's.

One might suggest that acting on the broken windows theory with tools like SeeClickFix might curb long term violence and crime. (This also happens to be the neighborhood where 40 street lights were out for two years)

That's one solution but clearly not the ultimate one. (SeeClickFix has existed for two years in New Haven and we still have urban violence). I am curious if anyone has thoughts or suggestions as to new solutions that might resolve this persistent problem. It might seem wildly idealist that I believe that there is a technical solution, but to not question its existence would be irresponsible as social entrepreneurs.

So let's have it. There are wars going on in our neighborhoods that are so accepted that they get substantially less press than a single murder

As technologists we have disrupted the music industry, publishing, the media and government. What is the business that is going to disrupt gang violence and can you create it?

Please share this and offer thoughts.


  1. Ben says:

    Max Ulenhuth just sent out this email based on this post to Yale Entrepreneurial Society:

    " Hello all,

    Just read an interesting and moving piece on gang violence in New Haven. It was written by Ben Berkowitz, the local entrepreneur behind SeeClickFix (the iPhone municipal problem reporting tool). Ben's lived in New Haven all of his life and he's a huge community advocate. In the post he writes about trying to tackle the gang problem in New Haven by using community-based reporting tools and other business/tech strategies.

    This is a perfect challenge for the Yale Entrepreneurial Society to think about and take action on. That's what entrepreneurs do - they identify needs in their communities, develop solutions, and give back.

    So read Ben's post and come to tonight's meeting with some ideas.


    P.S. I've cc'd Ben on this email in case anyone wants to get in touch with him directly. (Ben, feel free to drop by our YES-wide transition meeting tonight at 7PM in the YES office - next to TYCO)

  2. leecruz says:

    You have taken the first step, declaring your commitment to finding a solution in community. I urge you to read On Crime As Science (A Neighbor At a Time) a NYT article that summurizes the findings of the research of Dr. Felton Earls in equally violent neighborhoods in Chicago: Combining this research with the framwork for developing a "health neighborhood" developed by Fall Creek Consultants: is in my estimation a good place to start, talk with Kevien Ewing about this if you are interested.

  3. Ben says:

    Thanks Lee,
    I will check both of them out!

  4. Ben says:

    Hey Lee,
    This NYTimes article is great. How can we help encourage less tolerance of this kind of blight.
    What are the incentives that change behavior?

  5. Nathalie says:

    Ben, you know this very well, it is all about relationships.

    Building better communities is not about physical infrastructure, but about the social fabric of the neighborhoods in which we live. To paraphrase Dr. Earl, How some initiative gets done (if the process was inclusive and transparent, if everybody had an opportunity to participate be heard, and carry a role) is as important as what actually gets done (the content).

    I for my part would like to work on the first of the two factors Dr. Earls identifies as driving violence: concentrated poverty. I think i have raised this before, but I would like to see SeeClickFix become a sort of "Meet Up for Social Change in your neighborhood" kinda website, where people interested in an issue can post, i don't know, something like "meet at my house now let's talk about shootings." I think people in some parts of town already use it as a forum to discuss issues and generate action, but it's still largely seen as a reporting ("broken windows") site. This of course depends almost entirely on the user and not on the interface. I still think there might be a way for SCF to dwelve into the collective efficacy idea.

    I don't know much about Newhalville/Dixwell and don't have friends there, but as an adopted daughter of New Haven I feel its pain. It's funny to think that all this happened not too far away from where we live.... I don't think you or I could go and help build relationships being outsiders (not living there--i guess im making an assumption about your relationship with that particular neighborhood) but I do think you can provide some cool tools a la SCF. In any case, this needs to be combined with providing some attractive opportunities for those kids, i think alternatives to violence are all about job opportunities.

    just sharing some thoughts.
    peace out.

  6. Thanks for starting this discussion, Ben. As you know, about two years ago I got involved with the West River community. It was at the start of an effort sponsored by the Community Foundation and spearheaded by Kevin Ewing, and since then I've wholeheartedly adopted the philosophy of relational culture. As Nathalie said above, it's all about the neighborhood fabric, and all it takes to create that fabric is saying hello to your neighbor. It's the littlest thing, but when done over and over the cumulative effect is astounding. I went out to walk the dog this evening, and as soon as I hit the sidewalk a bunch of kids started calling my name and running over to pet the dog. I turned the corner and somebody called out hello from a third story window. When I moved to this neighborhood I felt like an alien. Now it feels like home.

    It's an amazing thing that last Saturday, in the middle of this streak of murders, we had our best neighborhood cleanup yet. About fifteen neighbors came out, and we were matched by about fifteen students from Yale Law School. We spread out through the neighborhood and scooped up all the trash and litter, and then we had a cookout in one of the city's tiny urban parks about a half a block from where a murder occurred a week earlier. The neighborhood's looking better, and anybody who saw us knows that the people who live in West River care about the neighborhood and are committed to its improvement. Next week we'll have our block watch meeting to learn about the current situation and how we can keep ourselves safe. In my opinion it's this sort of effort, more than any rally or march, that will stop these problems before they start.

    I like the term Nathalie used, social fabric. Every connection between neighbors is a strand in the fabric. The more strands, the stronger the fabric and the more able it is to hold the badness at bay.

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