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Geospatial Center Tracks Mass Shootings

Sandy Hook slayings prompted an interactive data project.

Photo: Kathryne Young

RESPONDER: Carbajales has often put her data management skills to good use in disaster situations.

PATRICIA CARBAJALES WAS AT HOME, ill, the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December 2012. Able to do little but lie in front of the television, she watched for hours as the horror came into focus—27 dead, 20 of them first-graders. The agony of seeing the news unfurl ignited an urge to do something. For Carbajales, a lecturer and manager at Stanford's Geospatial Center, that meant using her expertise with databases, maps and geography to open new perspectives on this and similar occurrences.

After a long weekend of work, she had the beginnings of Mass Shootings in America, an interactive site that now includes data on more than 150 incidents extending back to 1966, the year a sniper at the University of Texas gunned down 17 people. That attack, she says, ushered in the era when such events became more of a recognized social phenomenon.

The site tracks shootings with three or more victims, with certain exceptions such as tragedies involving family members. Using maps, charts and graphics, it allows users to zero in on particular incidents for details such as signs of a shooter's mental illness or types of weapons used, while allowing them to step back and look for patterns that may have emerged.

Graphics compare such things as perpetrators' ages, how occurrences have spread across the country over time, and correlations between the fate of the shooters and the number of victims. For example, incidents in which the shooter died tend to involve twice as many dead as those where the killer was arrested.

Not surprisingly—given Columbine, Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech—the data confirm that shootings at schools and colleges account for the largest number of fatalities, but Carbajales says seeing that fact made vivid in a simple pie graph still startles people.

Carbajales became interested in geographic information systems as a student in Spain enticed by the technology's potential to better guide the response to forest fires then ravaging much of the country. She has often followed the instinct to put her talents to good ends. The last weekend before she moved from Santa Barbara to begin her job at Stanford in 2010, she missed saying goodbye to friends so she could volunteer in a World Bank effort scanning satellite images for signs of destruction from the earthquake that had just devastated Haiti. Last fall, she led a GIS class focused on creating maps and charts to guide the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in its response to the streams of people fleeing war in Syria and elsewhere. This spring, she is slated to teach a course called GIS for Good.

Originally, the Mass Shootings site reflected the raw emotions of its genesis, including a list of the names of the Sandy Hook victims. But after Carbajales presented the idea to her bosses, who agreed to bring the project under the auspices of the Geospatial Center, whose mission is to help campus GIS needs, it has taken on the reserved cast of a professional research tool—though a dedication to the Sandy Hook victims remains. The goal, Carbajales says, is an unbiased, interactive, open-sourced resource with data available to other researchers on request—a combination of features she hasn't found elsewhere. So far requests have come from nonprofit think tanks like the Police Foundation and from universities as far away as Denmark. The center doesn't have an agenda, she says, other than trying to offer new approaches to a problem that seems to ebb from public consciousness between tragedies.

The site is still a work in progress. Information about older events or ones that took place in rural areas is often hard to come by. Fact-finding about mental health problems and motives can be difficult, too; Carbajales says much remains to be added. Currently, for example, viewers can scan maps that simultaneously show the locations of shootings, the relevant state's spending on mental health and its current level of gun control. It would be more meaningful to map shootings over time, as changes in gun laws and mental health spending occur, she says.

Carbajales invites feedback from experts, faculty and researchers on what else to track. Policy and law aren't her expertise; data mapping and presentation are. And she's eager to help—with a simple goal. "I want to add fewer dots to this map."

1973 Mass Shootings Map

1993 Mass Shootings Map

2013 Mass Shootings Map
Courtesy Stanford Geospatial Center (3)
WHERE, WHEN AND HOW: One of the Mass Shootings site's maps features a timeline tool that "slides" from 1966 to 2013, showing the geography of gun violence. Users can click on the dots to learn the details of each incident. Bigger dots represent more victims.

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