Annenberg researchers use data science skills for social justice

Incarcerated individuals are five times more likely to be infected by the coronavirus, and they are also more likely to die as a result. The pandemic has ravaged prisons across the country, and—with visitation suspended and little or no reporting available about what’s happening inside—many loved ones have no concrete information about the health and safety of those incarcerated.

Two incarcerated people seen from above and behind with their hands handcuffed behind their backs outside in a prison yard.

Last summer, the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd sparked a desire in Annenberg School for Communication doctoral candidate Jacob M. Parelman to use his data science skills for social justice.

“I was motivated to do something, but I didn’t know what would be most helpful to the people and organizations already mobilizing around the issues that are important to me,” says Parelman. “So I just decided to reach out to a few groups in Philly, including Amistad Law Project, and ask if they had any data related needs I could help with.”

Focused on prison abolition since its founding in 2014, Amistad Law Project (ALP) offers free or low-cost legal services to Philadelphians and incarcerated individuals in Pennsylvania prisons, and advocates for laws and policies to reduce, and eventually eliminate, prison populations.

Perelman joined with Matthew Brook O’Donnell, a research scientist at Annenberg, and Sean Damon at ALP, to compile what data was publicly available already, analyzing it to understand what information was present and what was missing, and creating an archive of it, in the event the state decided to revoke access to it. They quickly realized that the data was incomplete, so they reached out to the state in an attempt to acquire more data. Eventually, after a lot of back and forth, they began receiving daily spreadsheets from the Department of Corrections.

They have used all of this data to create an open access dashboard, hosted by ALP, that anyone can view online. They caution that it’s not perfect, as they are limited to the data the state will share with them, and unfortunately, they’ve noticed errors and inconsistencies with even this limited data.

Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.