Data for Justice: CDS MS Students Raj Choudhary and Xu Han create Data Indicator Tool on prison populations through NYU Marron’s Litmus Program
The project was made possible in partnership with the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) and the Women’s Justice Institute (WJI)
CDS MS Students Raj Choudhary and Xu Han developed an online Data Indicator Tool with the NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management, which compiles Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) prison and parole population data. The tool was launched in collaboration with the Women’s Justice Institute (WJI), with a Women’s Data Dashboard that focuses on women in custody and on parole. While IDOC data have been made publicly available for some time, the new tool allows the public to easily interact with the information as well as pull up filterable charts that can be downloaded as images or spreadsheets.
The project was made possible through NYU Marron’s Litmus program, where Raj and Han are both Data for Justice Student Fellows. Directed by Angela Hawken, Professor of Public Policy and Director of NYU Marron, Litmus works with public agencies and communities to innovate. Angela started the ReadyData initiative to assist agencies across the United States in making key information publicly available, improving their transparency and data usage. Her team integrates NYU students into these projects, giving them a hands-on learning experience.
To learn more about the development of the IDOC Indicator Tool, CDS spoke with Raj and Xu about their work and advice for current CDS students.
Can you talk a bit about how the project began and how you and your teammates became involved?
Professor Angela Hawken came to the CDS Spring Research Fair 2022 to look for students for her first cohort of “Data for Justice Summer Fellows,” to work on a variety of applied-research projects making use of data from their criminal-justice project partners. We were interested in using our skillset to work on a project with a social impact, and her portfolio of projects resonated with us. We applied to join for the summer and were assigned to the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) team to build an interactive dashboard to help both the agency and the public better understand their prison and parole population data.
For the Women’s Data Dashboard specifically, could you share a bit about what this data tracks and why this is such an important area for data collection?
The Women’s Data Dashboard is an informative and detailed platform that focuses on women’s prison and parole population data released by IDOC. Several key metrics over time are tracked, including prison/parole population change by demographic information and crime class over time. We also indicated the onset of the Covid-19 emergency on most visualizations to suggest how external events may affect women’s incarceration. Apart from the IDOC data, Illinois geographical data are also collected for a map indicating the distribution of women’s prison and parole populations by regions in IL. These data visualizations and aggregations illustrate changes in particular groups of interest, e.g., women’s parole population in a parole district.
What impact do you hope will this project have on the future of data science in tackling social justice issues?
In August 2022, we had the opportunity to tour Illinois and meet with our partner agencies to demonstrate the tool and get their feedback. During the presentation to the Director of IDOC and his executive team, they stayed an hour longer than scheduled to try out the tool on their devices and asked us to use it live to help answer some day-to-day questions. This showcases the importance of such a tool (and data science in general) for agencies to better understand their own data and find patterns that aren’t evident when working with spreadsheets or static plots, which helps in improving policies and programming.
Do you have any advice for current CDS students who might be thinking about taking on projects like this?
Data visualization is crucial to data analysis. Before starting the code and plotting the graph, you should think about which type of visualization is best suited to the information behind the data. Creativity is important as well. An advantage of data visualization is that it gives you lots of space to be creative and follow your own ideas. It allows you to think about innovative and effective ways to visualize data and give the audience a better understanding of what the data is telling them.
By Meryl Phair