Creating a Youth Violence Data System for Boston, Massachusetts

By Azrael, Deborah; Johnson, Renee M. et al. | Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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Creating a Youth Violence Data System for Boston, Massachusetts


Azrael, Deborah, Johnson, Renee M., Molnar, Beth E., Vriniotis, Mary, Dunn, Erin C., Duncan, Dustin T., Hemenway, David, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology


The Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center has partnered with the city of Boston, Massachusetts to create a data system to track youth violence. The system provides continuing information about fighting, bullying, dating violence and gun carrying. Data from it show that many Boston adolescents are afraid on public transportation (as compared to home, school or street) and that most students widely overestimate the number of their classmates carrying guns. The system also provides data on neighbourhood variables such as collective efficacy. The system has been a success due to the mutual respect shown between the academic and city partners, and the mutual benefits it provides to both.

Keywords: youth violence, neighbourhood, surveillance system

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Youth violence is a significant public health concern in the United States. Not only are US youth at high risk of homicide, but surveys of US youth have repeatedly found that the large majority of youth report having witnessed, been victimised by or having perpetrated violence in their lifetimes (Buka, Stichick, Birdthistle, & Earls, 2001). In 2005, the principal US public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), responded to the problem of youth violence by funding eight 'Academic Centers for Excellence' to 'study and create lasting ways to prevent youth violence' (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2007).

This article describes a comprehensive collaboration between one of the centres, the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center (HYVPC) and the city of Boston, Massachusetts. (1) The centrepiece of the collaboration is an ongoing, multilevel, multimethod data collection and linkage effort that brings together individual and neighbourhood level data--collected from both youth and adults--as part of a broad-based effort to increase capacity to reduce youth violence in the city. Data from the system are beginning to make it possible for policymakers, community members and academic researchers to understand the contribution of family, school, and neighbourhood factors to youth wellbeing and to design interventions to reduce youth violence, foster positive youth development and enhance youth resiliency.

Project History

In 2003, the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center (HYVPC) of the Harvard School of Public Health was approached by the city of Boston to help revise their Boston Youth Survey (BYS), a survey that had been given to a sample of youth in summer school and summer jobs programs intermittently since the mid-1990s. The HYVPC redesigned the survey and, in collaboration with the city, in spring 2004, administered it to a random sample of about 1,000 high school students.

The 2004 collaboration worked well and in 2005, in partnership with the city, HYVPC sought and received funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a 5-year multitiered, multimethod research project, the Boston Data Project, designed to build capacity to reduce youth violence in Boston. The Boston Data Project (BDP) consists of two major data collection efforts: the biennial Boston Youth Survey (BYS), an in-school paper and pencil survey of Boston public high school students, and the Boston Neighborhood Survey (BNS), a random-digit-dial telephone survey of Boston adults. A key feature of data from these two surveys is that we are able to identify the US Census tract of residence for each respondent. As a result, data from the surveys can be aggregated geographically and linked to other geo-coded data sources. Assembling and linking area-level data from various Boston datasets, such as US Census and Boston Police Department incident files, is the third major component of the BDP. The three components of the system are described in more detail below.

The Boston Youth Survey (BYS)

The BYS is a biennial survey of high school students in Boston Public Schools.

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