High school algebra teacher Susan Lee remembers the time a mugger stalked and attacked a female teacher on her way to class. And that other time, when the same thing happened to a female student. Last summer, she tells me, someone stole a whole cart of laptops from her school, which serves talented kids from largely poor neighborhoods in South Philadelphia.
In each case, she says, the attackers knew the victims were on their way to school. "It’s easier to grab them on their way here," Lee notes.
The basic safety of schoolchildren seems like a problem official-type grownups should be trying to address. But instead it’s the kids who have come up with an innovative solution: An app to determine the safest walking routes to and from school.
It didn’t have to get this bad. But conditions for Philadelphia public school students have tanked after state lawmakers ushered in big budget cuts to the school district in 2011. A lack of City Council sales-tax revenue that was supposed to be distributed to the schools could make it worse. Last year, the Philadelphia school district laid off nearly 4,000 public school employees and closed 24 schools. Now, the already-crowded surviving schools are flooded with more students and hardly any more resources. Fewer public schools also mean that some kids have to walk greater distances to class, and sometimes through pretty sketchy parts of town. At Palumbo, the school where Lee works, half the kids get to school on foot.
So when Samsung offered up a prize for students who design the best ways to improve their communities, Lee knew she had a good opportunity to help figure out ways to make students and teachers more safe. She looped in physics teacher Klint Kanopka, and the two started developing an after-school lesson plan. Over the next several months, a team of 15 students began surveying their peers and analyzing walking routes. Their final product, an algorithm to determine the safest walking routes to school, won the national Samsung Solve for Tomorrow award in March.
"From that [survey] data, the students started to visualize it and get a feel for what routes should look like based on distance, and what places you want to actually avoid," Kanopka explains. "From that point, they struggled, freaked out, got stressed out quite a bit, then arrived at a rather elegant quantitative solution."
The app is still in its conceptual form, but works something like this: After looking at the crime data, the Palumbo kids ranked the geography and "emotional valence" of crimes within 10 blocks of the school. The app advises the students where to walk—and the lower a route scores in their risk algorithm, the safer it is. While muggers could look up the "safe" routes on the app themselves, Lee believes that there's strength in numbers, and muggers might be less likely to target kids in groups. And when the Philadelphia police department releases crime data, the app would automatically update.
The Samsung award came with an enormous goody bag of electronics, the equivalent of $140,000. That’s more than enough to replace the stolen laptops from last summer.
But the recognition was also bittersweet. When Samsung flew Lee, Kanopka, and the students down for a presentation at South by Southwest, the teachers noticed how different their project looked from the other winning ideas on display.
"It was kind of sad because we were looking at other projects, and they were about helping the environment or growing vegetables, and ours is like: ‘Avoid getting hurt,’" Lee says. "The thing is, the kids see it as something that’s become their everyday."
But it’s not just grade-school students who are interested in the idea. Kanopka recently presented the idea to a group of University of Pennsylvania masters students in urban planning and engineering. Now, Penn and Kanopka are in talks to get a program up and running over the summer between the university and the Palumbo kids.
"For right now, it feels like more needs to be done that prevents these things from happening in the first place, but in the meantime we can make them feel safer," Lee says. "If we can really work with Penn and create this app, it could create a difference in how [the students] see their world."