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Apples to apples Detroit ranks 17th not first in crime

By Data Driven Detroit Staff

On October 3 Forbes ran a list of America’s Most Dangerous Cities, with emphasis on the Top 10. Detroit was Number One. We at Data Driven Detroit (D3) take issue with that … from a data point of view. When the data is properly analyzed Detroit ranks 17th.

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Let’s start by saying any Top 10 list or ranking should be approached with caution. This post included.  Though Forbes’ analysis is certainly misleading, Detroit still has a crime issue that needs to be addressed.  What D3 seeks to underline is the ranking of anything is going to involve a level of simplification that may contort facts or simply ignore them. Readers should be especially critical of lists that seek to simplify data sets.  Data are highly complex, especially those gathered at the national level such as the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR), which Forbes used to create its ranking.

Data Driven Detroit’s mission is to provide up-to-date, objective information about the Detroit region that will help make better decisions. When that information is negative the first inclination is often to run away from it.  Accurate information is purely information that, whether negative or positive, should be accepted and acknowledged for what it is and serve as a basis for action. Let’s not use this Forbes ranking as a reason to hide our heads in the sand when faced with information that portrays Detroit in a negative light.  Instead, let us face it head on, understand the information presented, and proactively address what we are doing to turn it to a positive. Police Chief Godbee and his team are working hard on that and have a strong plan to work with the community to attack crime and be proactive about making Detroit’s neighborhoods safer.

However, when the information, or its analysis, is shown to be inaccurate, it must be challenged. Data literacy is best described as a general understanding of a dataset in respect to how it was gathered and how it was analyzed.  Debunking misleading analysis is one approach to improving data literacy.

Here is Data Driven Detroit’s analysis of the Forbes ranking:

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  • The difference between apples and oranges

Nine out of the ten geographies listed in Forbes’ piece are metropolitan statistical areas (MSA), but the included geography for Detroit is a metropolitan division (MD).  The Detroit MSA includes six counties while the Detroit MD includes only Wayne County. This is a difference of roughly 2.5 million people.  All this underlines a basic lesson from Statistics 101. Do not compare apples to oranges.  In this instance the apples-to-oranges comparison hugely biases the results against Detroit by concentrating its crime.  When Detroit is properly included on the list as an MSA, it is actually ranked 17th in the nation for crime – not first!

  • Size matters

To be fair, a possible reason Forbes used the Detroit MD instead of the Detroit MSA is because the Detroit MD is closer in size to the other nine MSAs included in the ranking.  The average size of the nine included MSAs is roughly 650,000 people.  In comparison, Detroit’s MSA is 4.35 million whereas its MD is just shy of 2 million. Choosing the Detroit MD is likely Forbes’ attempt to compare apples to apples. However, it is unfortunate the apples they chose are not the apples recommended by the Census Bureau.

What may be a more relevant question to ask Forbes is “Why are the most dangerous cities in America so small?”  Where is Los Angeles? New York?  These, after all, are the settings for America’s top television crime drama Law & Order.  It is likely this pattern is related to the fact that MSAs are not really cities at all but economic regions.  Cities tend to have economies that spill over into the neighboring cities, townships and counties. The larger the city the more spillover is going to be included in the MSA.  The larger MSAs are more likely to pull in more neighboring suburbs than the smaller MSAs.  The inclusion of suburbs, which tend to be safer than cities, will help to offset larger cities’ crime stats.  Smaller cities will have smaller MSAs, which are less likely to include many suburbs, thus isolating their crime similar to the manner in which Forbes’ isolated Detroit’s crime.

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  • Forbes’ flip flops: Last year we were one of the safest cities?

The Forbes headline, “Most Dangerous Cities,” could be described as an incomplete superlative. Their definition of “Dangerous” only includes violent crime, not other obvious dangers like automotive collisions, natural disasters, or environmental health risks.  Back in 2010, when Forbes was actually comparing MSAs to each other instead of MDs and using multiple measures of danger instead of simply using crime alone, they listed Metro Detroit as the twelfth safest city in the nation. Is it possible that in the span of only two years, Detroit went from being the twelfth safest city to the most dangerous? Probably not.

  • Read the Fine Print

Forbes uses the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report data in exactly the way the FBI advises it should not be usedto rank locales. “Data users should not rank locales because there are many factors that cause the nature and type of crime to vary from place to place,” says the FBI UCR site. “UCR statistics include only jurisdictional population figures along with reported crime, clearance, or arrest data. Rankings ignore the uniqueness of each locale.”

  • Fill in the blanks

The FBI UCR data Forbes uses is incomplete. Cities report voluntarily to the FBI UCR database and not all cities participate. The FBI UCR data Forbes uses is incomplete. Cities report voluntarily to the FBI UCR database and not all cities participate. Chicago, for example, does not report its crime statistics to the FBI and therefore is not included in Forbes’ Most Dangerous Cities ranking.  Forbes’ admits this flaw outright in the safest American cities article. However, it is important to reiterate that they voluntarily chose to use a flawed data set for the dangerous cities article.

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  • Place matters, and so does perception

The Forbes’ analysis ignores crime is often concentrated in certain neighborhoods, not spread evenly across entire cities. It reinforces negative stereotypes about its listed cities in their entirety, making it more difficult for those places to take positive actions to reduce crime and improve their communities’ strength. Last year the New Haven Register reported on this when the Forbes’ list was published. Quoting Robert McCrie, professor in the Department of Protection Management at The City University of New York, the paper said, “In Washington, D.C., for example, the city is divided into four districts, but only one is ridden with crime. That creates a public perception, which, in turn, has a ‘measurable effect’ on the community, real estate values and choices on where students matriculate for college and other quality of life issues.”

  • Data can tell many stories

The story Forbes’ chose is more telling of their perception of Detroit than it is an accurate description of the data. The FBI’s UCR data does not report anything more than how many incidents for each violent crime category.  The opening paragraph in the Forbes’ article highlights the brutal and sensational murder of twenty-three-year-old Diana DeMayo in order to grab the reader’s attention. In addition, the reporter had to change his original lead when a comment from a reader pointed out that the “crime” he originally chose to highlight … the death of banker David Widlak …was ruled a suicide and that Widlak did not have an office in downtown Detroit nor did he live or work in Detroit, Livonia or Dearborn.

  • Pictures Distort the Story

Pictures also help tell a story. The second picture of Detroit in the Forbes’ article is of a former Chrysler factory being demolished.  The use of this photo suggests that it is intended as a metaphor for danger. However, not only is there another Chrysler plant opening just down the street, but the demolition of an old abandoned plant could be perceived as a positive action. As Mayor Bing told MLive recently, “Abandoned and dilapidated buildings are hotspots for crime and a living reminder of a time when the City of Detroit turned a blind eye to owners who neglected their properties.” Bing himself sees the demolition of unused buildings as a way to fight crime and spawn redevelopment.

Forbes does link back to a video done by its Detroit reporter about the transformation of the city, which helps give a more objective view of the city.

Again we want to emphasize Detroit must continue to work on public safety and we cannot be defensive about the issues we face.  We must be proactive. We just want the data, and the analysis, to be accurate.

Check out the D3 staff blog Block by Block and the D3 newsletter The Common Denominator for more analysis.

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