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Can You Imagine: Using Wearable Technology to Study Gun Violence in Chicago?

NCSA faculty fellow, Ruby Mendenhall is taking an innovative approach in addressing gun violence and crime – by looking at it as a public health issue. Mendenhall, an Assistant Dean for the Carle College of Medicine and an Associate Professor in African-American studies and Sociology at the University of Illinois, is using big data to look into the lives of twelve African-American mothers in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.

The high levels of violence in Englewood are well-known, but what Ruby wants to know is how much influence this violence has on the health of residents in the neighborhood. Over a thirty-day period, Mendenhall partnered with Kiel Gilleade, a research programmer at NCSA, and with help from other team members, measured the stress levels of the twelve women as they moved throughout the day.

The researchers combined data from a wearable heart monitor, GPS, and 911 calls about shots fired to see what relationship nearby criminal activity had on the women’s heart rate and other measures of health, such as sleep patterns. The research is ongoing, but preliminary data combined with the women’s written diaries captured moments of stress induced by crime and showed how researchers can use new technologies, such as virtual reality, to capture the lived experiences of black mothers on the margins of society. Many visitors to the exhibit reported gaining a better understanding of what it is like to live in communities with high levels of violence or what has been described as a “hidden America.”

“When you’re on the margins of society, your lived experiences very rarely make it into the academic journals,” Ruby says. “It makes it into the news, in terms of stereotypes and things like that—but rarely does that tell about who you are, your strengths, how you are trying to combat this violence, how you are raising beautiful children despite all of this, how you crumble when your children die, after you do everything you know to do and your child still gets caught in the crossfire.

“We can change this as a country and we must.”

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