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Grading on a Curve

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eye on the news

Grading on a Curve

Boosterism trumps reality in a new evaluation of the country’s safest cities. October 20, 2017
Cities
Public safety

The Economist recently released its regular Safe Cities index, and press outlets, from London’s Telegraph to Business Insider to Crain’s Chicago Business to Time Out New York, have dutifully reported the results. nyc is no longer the safest city in the us, Time Out titled its piece, neatly complemented by Crain’s chicago ranked one of the world’s safest cities headline. The index, though, says nothing useful about how safe the world’s cities are. It does say quite a bit about the global elite’s discomfort with discussing one of America’s gravest urban threats—black-on-black crime—and about the elite’s willingness to distort statistics to avoid the topic.

Ranking the world’s cities by relative safety, The Economist’s “Intelligence Unit” puts Tokyo, Toronto, and Stockholm at the top. This makes intuitive sense, but when it turns to American cities, the list rates Chicago, with a score of 82.21 out of 100, as safer than New York, with 81.01 points. This does not make intuitive sense—and objective statistics back up intuition. Start with life expectancy, a pretty good measure of whether you’re safe somewhere. In Chicago, it’s 78—just shy of one year below the national average. In New York, it’s 81, above the national average.

The murder rate in Chicago was 28 per 100,000 people last year—seven times New York’s rate of four per 100,000. Chicago is twice as dangerous on violent crime, per capita, as New York. Worried about getting hit by a car? Chicago had 119 traffic deaths in 2015, compared with 234 in New York—despite New York having more than three times the population.

How, then, did Chicago come out ahead? The Economist’s analysts didn’t so much manipulate data as create them. On “prevalence of violent crime,” both New York and Chicago score 75 out of 100, a statistically indefensible result, and one reached in a circular fashion: The Economist doesn’t cite a national law-enforcement database, or even annual local news reports of murders, but its own internal analysis. And, on traffic deaths, the analysts heavily weight accidents per 1 million inhabitants—though a minor traffic crash without injuries is incidental for its victims. On pedestrian deaths, the numbers are, again, just plain wrong: New York and Chicago had nearly identical rates in 2015, leaving it a puzzle why the analysts would award the Windy City a 7 percent higher score here.

Where data fiction and innumeracy didn’t suffice, the analysts chose irrelevancy. Chicago scored well on “digital security,” because, as the report notes, “the city is home to several leading cyber security firms and in January its mayor, Rahm Emanuel, announced the launch of a new cyber security training initiative.” This non sequitur is like saying that New Jersey is the healthiest state because it is home to so many pharmaceutical companies. Another touted data point on “digital security” is the percentage of citizens with Internet access. Widespread Internet access may be a social good, but having it by definition decreases digital security.

What is the motive for this presentation, and who is the audience? Chicago has been in the news for more than a year because of its skyrocketing violent crime; last Friday, three more people were killed. The vast majority of this crime is black children and young men shooting other black children and young men, though sometimes they miss: a 64-year-old woman was among Friday’s victims. These facts make global elites uncomfortable, and highlighting them in a report would apparently seem racist, or at least rude.

There is also a practical matter: if you’re a businessman travelling from Heathrow to O’Hare for a three-day trip, and don’t stray from a 15-or-so-block business district and waterfront, Chicago is safe—and lovely, as well. Chicago can top New York on a “safe cities” index, then, only after you’ve ignored and tortured the data, and also asked the question: safe for whom?

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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