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Mallory O’Brien
Data Detective

Shots are fired, someone falls, the body count mounts. 

Mallory O’Brien reaches for her spreadsheets. 

O’Brien is an epidemiologist, a supreme number cruncher. She developed a violence reporting system at Harvard School of Public Health, then adapted the system in Milwaukee in 2005 by forming the Homicide Review Commission to help tame the city’s mean streets. 

Think of the system as a social autopsy. To identify root causes of violence, O’Brien’s team examines arrest reports, victim and suspect demographics, and more. Then it works with law enforcement, social service providers and neighborhood groups to craft intervention strategies. 

The results? Milwaukee homicides dropped from 122 in 2005 to 72 in 2009. While the numbers are creeping up again. O’Brien thinks it could be partly attributed to not following her multilayer strategies.

Her model is so innovative that her team has trained more than 100 cities. And now she’s tackling other social problems. 

Say her data identifies a population of middle school students with learning disabilities, and a significant percentage of them had tested positive for lead paint exposure as toddlers. And say her data also identifies children who today, at 2 or 3 years old, are testing positive for blood lead. Maybe a team of health and education experts could step in to treat those kids. 

It’s happening right now, with no lag time, before the consequences turn dire.

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