Leveraging Data to Protect Incarcerated Populations
By Lisa Armstrong
When Anna Harvey took over as interim dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science in fall 2015, she was tasked with helping to create a new graduate program in data science. Harvey thought it would be enlightening to examine data from various law enforcement agencies to look into policing and incarceration. Her underlying question: Do our current policies and practices actually make our communities safer?
Harvey’s inquiry led to the creation of NYU’s Public Safety Lab in 2017, after her term as interim dean had ended. The lab provides data and analysis to advocates, agencies, and others to “increase both equity and efficiency in criminal justice outcomes,” she has said. In addition to being the lab’s director, Harvey is an Arts and Science professor of politics as well as an affiliated professor at the Center for Data Science and the School of Law.
One of the lab’s projects, the Jail Data Initiative, has Harvey and her team scraping jail rosters and criminal case records in over 1,000 counties daily, compiling information on about 250,000 incarcerated people on any given day. This work has been especially pertinent in 2020, with advocates’ concerns about the unchecked spread of COVID-19 in jails.
The lab’s data has been used by non-NYU groups, too. A report from the Prison Policy Initiative, for instance, graded state-run correctional facilities for their performance in handling the pandemic. The highest grade any state received was a D-.
Harvey firmly believes that universities, with their exceptional researchers, tax-exempt status, and other unique resources, have an obligation to address pressing social justice issues. She was drawn to teaching at NYU because of the promise that she could pursue one-of-a-kind projects such as the Public Safety Lab. “They said, ‘Come and help us build a world-class research university in the heart of downtown New York that will be responsive to the city and its needs.’ And I thought that was really exciting,” Harvey says. “We have an obligation to give back to our communities.”