The Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center (HYVPC) of the Harvard School of Public Health received CDC funding in 2005 for a five-year multi-tiered, multi-method research project designed to build capacity to reduce youth violence in Boston. To meet this goal, HYVPC entered into a partnership with the City of Boston, Office of Human Services (OHS) to form the Boston Data Project. The Boston Data Project is a comprehensive surveillance system that provides rich information on neighborhoods, communities, adults and youth in Boston. While the primary focus is on understanding risk and protective factors for violence, the Project also examines other indicators of physical and mental health and well-being for Boston residents, families, and communities. This is a collaborative effort involving multiple city and community stakeholders, as well as local organizations providing services to youth.
The Boston Data Project provides the City of Boston leaders, community stakeholders, service providers, and others with evidence-based policy planning tools for developing and evaluating interventions that prevent youth violence and increase neighborhoods’ capacity to respond to and enhance healthy development among youth. The Boston Data Project has three tiers of data collection: (1) a self-administered representative survey of high school students in Boston (the Boston Youth Survey), (2) a random-digit-dial telephone survey of Boston adults (the Boston Neighborhood Survey), and (3) a compilation of a multi-source dataset containing demographic, Census, and health-related data on Boston neighborhoods (the Boston GIS Project). In recognition of the importance of the Boston Data System, we received funding from the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to support additional analyses of the data.
The Boston Youth Survey (BYS)
The BYS is a biennial survey of high school students in Boston Public Schools. It is a collaborative project of HYVPC and the Boston Public Health Commission, with assistance from Boston Public Schools. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino first initiated the Youth Survey in 1997, with the goal of better understanding the lives of Boston’s youth and using that information to inform school- and community-based programming and violence prevention. In 2003, HYVPC joined with the Mayor’s office, Boston’s Office of Human Services, and the Boston Public Schools in this endeavor. As a result, the 2004 BYS was the first to randomly sample teenagers in school. The 2004 BYS obtained youths’ reports on: (1) demographics, (2) school and educational performance and goals, (3) feelings about self and future, (4) diet and exercise, (5) out-of-school activities, (6) use and availability of community resources, (7) exposure to violence – including witnessing, perpetration, and victimization, (8) safety concerns, (9) discrimination and harassment, (10) mental health, (11) gang activity, gun availability, and weapon carrying (12) drug use, (13) contact with police, (14) relationships with adults, and (15) use of media and technology. The 2006 and 2008 Boston Youth Surveys included additional items assessing: (1) dating violence perpetration, (2) sibling violence, (3) crime reporting behavior, (3) perception of their neighborhood’s collective efficacy, (4) unintentional injuries, and (5) suicide and self-harm. To date the survey has been administered three times (2004, 2006, 2008), yielding a combined total of more than 4,000 surveys. With close communication with BPHC, the HYVPC research team carries out data management, statistical analysis, and summarization of the data. Unfortunately, funding for the BYS ended in 2010, but we continue to search for funding to reinstate this important survey.
For more information about the BYS, including survey instruments and fact sheets, visit our BYS page.
The Boston Neighborhood Survey (BNS)
The BNS is a biennial telephone survey of adults in a Boston neighborhood. The purpose is to supplement BYS data with neighborhood-level contextual information. The BNS asks respondents about topics including: (1) community norms and neighborhood resources, (2) respondents’ sense of community well-being and perceptions of community safety, (3) demographic characteristics, and (4) the well-being of neighborhood youth. To date the BNS has been administered three times (2006, 2008, and 2010) and yielded more than 4,000 surveys. The BNS survey together with the BYS allows comparison between youth reports and adult perceptions about the same topics and neighborhoods.
By convention, Boston is divided into 16 districts, each of which has a high probability of being identified as distinct by city residents and most of which have relatively well-defined boundaries. To take advantage of the fact that the Boston Redevelopment Authority is able to provide data on 69 neighborhood statistical areas and Boston Public Health Commission data are available by Census tract, BNS respondents’ residential location are geocoded so that answers can be disaggregated (when sample sizes permit) to smaller geographic units. In this vein, BNS data can be summarized alongside data from other sources.
The Boston Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Project
The purpose of the Boston GIS Project is to examine neighborhood characteristics associated with individual-level risk and protective factors for violence. As part of the Boston GIS Project, we are able to assemble information from other data systems and link them with BYS and BNS data. Sources of data available for linkages include:
- Local hospital emergency department surveillance systems,
- Boston Police Department data on youth victimization, arrests of youth for violent crime, gun tracing data, and “hot spots” reports,
- Neighborhood-level data from agencies such as from the Boston Public Health Commission (e.g., health indicators), Boston Public Schools (e.g., truancy), or the Boston Redevelopment Authority (e.g., housing conditions), and
- U.S. Census data (e.g., socioeconomic status indicators).
Using geographic information systems (GIS) techniques, data from each source are displayed and analyzed spatially. BYS and BNS responses can then be considered in their geographical contexts.
A key measure of the Boston Data Project’s success is its utility to city and community partners and its ability to serve as a model for other locales wishing to build a similar system. To date, the core research team has:
- Prepared a 114-page Report of the 2004 Boston Youth Survey, formally released by the Mayor’s office in December 2005. The report, as well some background on its genesis, can be found here.
- Prepared and presented 2004 BYS data to Boston’s Chief of Human Services and other key members of the Mayor’s cabinet and advisory staff at City Hall. Of prime interest to these Boston city leaders were the results dealing with (a) youth assets; (b) where youth felt unsafe; (c) intimate partner or dating violence; (d) media and youth violence; and (e) new immigrants. A second presentation to the Mayor’s Interagency Working Group provided these results to key representatives of the Office of Human Services, the Boston Public Schools, the Boston Police Department, and the Boston Public Health Department.
- Analyzed data on gun carrying and youth exposure to violence for a presentation by Dr. Prothrow-Stith at Mayor Menino’s annual Handgun Summit.
- Completed detailed analyses on topics such as youth exposure to violence, youth experience of homicide and feelings of safety and made data-based presentations to HYVPC’s grassroots community partners, Boston’s High Risk Youth Network, the Northeast Injury Prevention Network, Governor-elect Deval Patrick’s staff, and at the American Public Health Association annual meeting. In addition, we have provided fact sheets presenting relevant analyses of data from the survey to Teen Empowerment, a local non-profit organization, the Mayor’s Summer 2006 Girl’s Initiative, and the Office of Human Services.
- Mapped, at the Boston neighborhood level, for various presentations: (i) 2004 BYS data on youths’ perceptions of safety with Boston Police Department data, emergency department data, and Census data.
- Prepared a presentation on trends in youth violence from 2004 to 2006 for the Rappaport Institute of Greater Boston, as well as a memo summarizing results to Mayor Tom Menino.
- Testified at three hearings on youth violence held by the Boston City Council.
- Prepared and released the 13-page 2006 Boston Youth Survey Highlights document, summarizing the survey results.
- Prepared a fact sheet on school safety and violence.
- Collaborated with the Boston Public Health Commission to incorporate the 2006 Boston Youth Survey data into BPHC’s 7-part Community Meetings Series in Fall 2007.
- Provided BYS and BNS data to BPHC for inclusion in their annual Health of Boston reports.
The Boston Data Project enables HYVPC to provide information to City agencies, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders in a format that is useful for identifying and addressing correlates of violence. For example, we are able to:
- Identify high-risk locales for youth violence (e.g., MBTA bus stations)
- Compare and contrast youths’ and adults’ perceptions of community well-being and safety
- Assess the association between neighborhood-level characteristics with violence- and well-being- related outcomes such as trust and use of City services;
- Analyze multi-year trends in victimization and perpetration at various ecological levels or locations (e.g., at school, in one’s neighborhood, by Police district)
- Assess the degree to which neighborhood-level indicators of economic status are correlated with assault and victimization among youth.
Data from the Boston Data Project are instrumental in evaluation, as we are able to track trends in knowledge, attitude, and/or behavior before and after policies or programs are enacted. For more information on the Boston Data Project, please contact Deb Azrael, Director of Research, at (617)432-0473.