The Philadelphia Department of Public Health's new dashboard compares shootings with other factors in the city

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Mayor Jim Kenney has talked about using a public health approach to combat gun violence for years. In 2018, he declared Philadelphia’s deadly gun violence epidemic a “public health crisis.”

What does that actually mean?

Treating gun violence like other health crises would mean that, like most diseases, it can be prevented, fixed, treated, or healed. It’s an approach that’s backed up by studies and endorsed by health experts and civic leaders around the nation.

The thinking plays out like this: If we look at environmental factors that have been proven to impact people’s health — like poverty. education level or employment status — changing those things can also influence violence, for better or worse.

To that end, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health created a public-facing Injury Prevention Dashboard.

Launched on March 26, the online tool seeks to identify root causes of gun violence through data collection, and via display of what the site calls “social determinants of health that are linked to violence.” It also shows some of the monetary costs of gun violence on society.

The initiative was managed by Dr. Ruth Abaya, a pediatric ER doctor at CHOP who is working with the health department for three years as its Stoneleigh Fellow. She’s a member of the National Medical Council on Gun Violence and has spoken nationally on the issue.

She explained the thinking behind the dashboard in a 2019 Inquirer op-ed. “Studies on blight remediation, transforming abandoned buildings and vacant lots, have demonstrated a significant reduction in violent crime,” Abaya wrote.

During a city gun violence briefing this week, Abaya said the health department dashboard is currently in “phase one.”

As of now, it only contains information through 2020, and the team is still determining how, and how frequently, to update it, Abaya said. There’s also a survey on the site asking users whether they found it useful, and how they plan to use the data.

So which health factors do the city highlight and how might they be used to combat Philly’s historically high gun violence? Here’s a walk through the new Injury Prevention Dashboard.

Where is the data from?

Data for the dashboard comes from several sources.

United States Census data is used to map citywide poverty, employment and education statistics. The dashboard relies on the Philadelphia Police Department to gather and chart the number of shooting victims while information from the Medical Examiner’s Office informs firearm fatalities.

Philly’s health department collects what it calls “de-identified” information about emergency department visits, including the reason for the visit and chief complaints lodged at the time of the visit.

Finally, quarterly data from the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Council was used to chart gun-related hospital charges.

How does it work?

The Injury Prevention Dashboard is broken down into six categories: Social determinants of health, shooting victims, citywide trends, demography, firearm shooting rates, firearm suicides, emergency department visits and hospitalization costs.

Users can click through the tabs to see maps and graphs that offer visual displays of gun violence trends and other related categories from as early as 2007.

The tab for citywide trends, for example, includes charted data about the number of weekly, monthly and annual fatal and nonfatal shooting victims.

How often will it be updated?

Right now, the Injury Prevention Dashboard only displays data through 2020 for most segments. During the city’s new, bi-weekly gun violence briefings, Abaya said the dashboard will likely be updated in a few months as feedback rolls in.

She added that since the initiative relies on a diverse set of data sources, the board may be updated at different frequencies.

What are some root causes of Philly’s gun crisis?

The dashboard shows charts of:

  • Percentage of people of all ages living in poverty
  • Percentage of people age 18 and older without a high school diploma
  • Percentage of unemployed people age 16 and older
  • Percentage of people between the ages of 16 to 19 who are neither in school or employed.

Using maps, the dashboard can toggle through charts displaying the frequency of each of those indicators alongside a map of fatal and nonfatal shootings in the city.

The data show that “most shootings occur in the same zip codes where there is also poverty, low educational attainment, unemployment and … young people … who are not enrolled in school and not employed,” researchers write.

What else does the dashboard show?

Under demography, users will find which groups are most and least impacted by gun violence over time. As widely and often reported, Black men comprise the highest number of shooting victims.

The number of children and women shot has been climbing since 2017, data shows, and the number shooting victims regardless of race has increased each year since 2018.

Firearm suicide charts show the number of victims has increased steadily since 2018 and that non-Hispanic white Philadelphians older than 45 represent the highest number of firearm by suicide victims.

Emergency department hospital visits for firearm-related injuries more than doubled from 93 in December 2019 to 199 in December 2020. As the hospital visits have increased, so have the total financial charges for gun hospitalizations. As of the second quarter of 2019, the most recent data available on the dashboard, more than $71 million was charged for gun hospitalizations, compared to about $52 million at the same time in 2018.

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...