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Final Project Write-Up

I have posted my final project in the form of a research website I built regarding gun violence in the US. The link is Gun Violence in America and can be viewed by anyone who uses the link. All of my maps, graphs, charts and visualizations are on this website and the data I used can be downloaded in Excel format from the “Sources” page.

I had originally tried to do a project on the correlation between gun violence and healthcare access, but I was unable to find more than one study, and hardly any raw data to create maps and graphs that I needed. So I decided to whittle down my project to just the history of gun violence in America.

In my research, I wanted to answer the question of why there is a rise of gun violence in the US, especially after seeing the reports on the recent school shooting in Connecticut. I wanted to explore gun homicide rates and totals, incarceration rates for gun offenses, gun violence in major cities, and the gun control debate.

I first started with looking at homicide rates in America. Within the US, handguns are the most common weapon used in the commission of a homicide. all other weapons are mostly statistical outliers. I found that areas such as the southeast US and areas with more relaxed or less enforced gun control had the highest rates of gun homicides and the highest rates of incarceration for gun-related charges. I do not find this surprising at all, in fact it was expected.

I also wanted to look at some of the laws that had been passed in Congress regarding gun control. The first law I looked at was the first federal law regarding gun control, the Gun Control Act of 1968, which created rules for gun dealers for registration of guns and to regulate interstate commerce in guns. Then there was the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, passed in 1993 to require back ground checks for those who are purchasing hand guns.

I was surprised to see that with so many hoops to jump through, how hard it is to buy a gun, there are still so many instances of gun violence (of the 30 most industrialized nations in the world, the US is almost 5 times more violent than any other). As I was putting together the map of the mass shootings, I realized that in all cases (except the Columbine shooting), the weapons used in the shootings were purchased legally and the purchasers passed a background check. What makes the shootings so horrible is that in most instances, the guns used had what are called “extended clips” or “high-capacity clips”, were the gun is able to hold more ammunition that normally. These high capacity clips are not illegal in most states.

From my research, I have come to understand that the main reason that there has been a rise in gun violence over the past 50 years is that the legislation has not kept up with the new technology that is out there for guns. 50 years ago, it was nearly impossible to own an automatic rifle because they were only issued by the military at the time. There is no reason as to why an ordinary citizen needs to own high capacity clips and huge stores of ammunition. If the legislation were to catch up to the modern technology, then there may be fewer instances of gun-related homicide.

One of the things asked of us for the final assignment was to show how we would ensure the security and preservation of our research over time. I decided to create a hypothetical on-going research project through GMU’s History Department. The reason I chose to do this is because educational institutions have a long lifespan, especially a huge school like George Mason, and have a constant group (though members change, there are always historians) of people available to work on the project. I also created a donate button and a contact form on the “Contact” page so that visitors to the site can donate money to the project and even submit their own research to be added to the database. I also wanted to create something that was nice-looking and easy to use, which I think I have accomplished with my site. This will ensure that users come back to the site because of it’s simple interface and free access to the information. It would also important to backup all of the files I used to compile the data needed (like the sources for my spreadsheets from the graphs and maps) so that as government databases remove old data to make room for the new, the project will still have that data in raw form. These are just some of the things I would like to do to ensure the security and preservation of the “Gun Violence in America Project.”

Scratch from MIT

I used to use Macromedia Flash back when I was a bit more involved in my computer work. I would create scenes and shorts about random subjects with Flash and post them online. It has been a while since I have used programs like this, but Scratch is an interesting tool to help beginners learn to use programming languages and to build problem solving skills through trial and error. It’s a very simple program with lots of commands already built into the easy to use GUI and I find it well organized.

However, for me it was somewhat difficult to figure out what Scratch was intended for. It’s hard to learn a new programming language when it looks nothing like what you have used in the past. I learned in VisualBasic, Java, and HTML, which are all text based commands. The interface of the building blocks that have commands, even though emulating the brackets and divisions of text code, were difficult to get used to.

I would have loved this in my classrooms in high school when learning computer language and logic. I’m just glad that it is a free program, since we have been talking about access to information and tools all semester.

Personal Archives

I was quite surprised at the level of recommended steps for backing up files. In the reading from the Library of Congress, the recommended number of back ups of the original file was at least two. I know for myself, I only back up to an external harddrive, and I don’t do it very often. I think that in the past 6 months I have backed up my computer maybe once, and I only back up a certain folder of important files (my music and videos and the like are not as important as my school stuff. Plus, most of my music is from iTunes or GooglePlay which allows me to re-download previous purchases in case I lose a file.)

One thing that the Library of Congress didn’t mention was the online back up services like Carbonite and Symantec. They use online backup technology which not only stores your information on multiple disks around the country, but some also back up on magnetic tape, allowing for even better preservation.

A list of the top ten consumer rated online back up services

However great these online back up services are for protecting your files, there is a new form of computing that has sprung up recently. Cloud computing is a term used to describe using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to store, manage, and process data, rather than a home computer. Google has already taken this to an entirely useable and accessible level with GoogleDocs. Not only are all of your files kept on Google’s servers, you can manage and edit in real time and have multiple collaborators on these files. Plus, you can access these files anywhere in the world as long as you have an internet connection, something that you can’t do with the back up services. It is the new way of having data storage and access all at the same time.

Access > Accuracy

I enjoyed reading Daniel Cohen’s article From Babel to Knowledge. Data aggregation is by far one of my favorite parts of the internet in general, because there is so much information out there and programs that make it easy to find exactly what you are looking for is extremely useful and important. But something that struck me was one of his “lessons” he learned in building search tools and algorithms: Resources that are free to use in any way, even if they are imperfect, are more valuable than those that are gated or use-restricted, even if those resources are qualitatively better.

He argues that free access is more important when it comes to data because the usefulness of that data is higher than a gated source. The fact that Wikipedia, even though it can be vandalized, users can send out a software agent to scan the entire Bush articles on the Wikipedia site and datamining becomes easier and more accessible to the masses.

I think access is what can determine between an informed populace and a select few within the greater population. When limiting information to a pay-per-use or pay-for-service model, those who cannot afford it or do not attend a university do not have acces to this particular data. It creates an uneven divide of who gets to know what. And I think that is wrong and ultimately dangerous.

The Good, the Bad, and PowerPoint

I got a good laugh at Peter Norvig’s “The Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation“, especially the slide about what is “NOT ON AGENDA”! It’s fascinating to think about how an important, historical address would be presented and understood in current times. But it’s also a good exploration into the prevalence and use of slide presentation and whether or not they are effective for presenters. Professor Tufte of Yale University makes the case that “rather than supplementing a presentation, [PowerPoint presentations have] become a substitute for it”.

I don’t know how many times I have used PowerPoint and other slide presentation software to give a presentation about something. They all suck, are boring, and I’m constantly unhappy with how they turn out. It’s frustrating to try and get a point across to someone without this crutch…. OH. It’s a crutch. For thousands of years, people have taught, preached, and politicized without PowerPoint. The fact that I need to spoon feed all the information I am trying to share only proves of my incompetence and discomfort with speaking and presenting. It really is ridiculous when I think about it.

But this isn’t to say that all presentation formats are bad, because as a student, I am grateful with my professors have a PowerPoint or a Prezi with related information like images and videos and graphs to help me understand what they are saying. If I’m being taught about chemical spectrums (I was once an Astronomy major) I’d like to see some spectrographic images to help me understand the difference between a noble gas and an unstable metal. There is a time and a place for this necessary evil, but not every single meeting I go to. I’m thankful that Tufte and Norvig have made me feel better about deciding to not use these programs as often.