“Conversations” features faculty members addressing topical, occasionally polemical issues from an engineering perspective.
Some 1,600 Pennsylvania residents lost their lives to gun violence in 2017, a rate that is among the highest in the nation – and which continues to rise. This grim statistic lies at the heart of Governor Tom Wolf’s new PA Committee for Reducing Gun Violence, formed in August by executive order. Reporting to former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, the committee will confront gun violence as a public health issue, one that shatters families and communities and “denigrates our values as Pennsylvanians.”
Dr. Joe Hughes, Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering (CAEE), has been selected to serve on the committee alongside policy experts, law enforcement officials, and community members whose lives have been upended by gun violence. Actively involved in the College of Engineering’s new Peace Engineering degree program, Hughes resolves to bring its conflict management lessons to the committee table.
How were you selected for this committee?
Two things came together that led to this. One, I serve on the governor’s health advisory board. And I think in that process you’re probably vetted for qualifications. On that board there is a requirement for at least one engineer: I’m the engineer. That committee’s task is broadly to provide advice to the governor. The main driver there is an issue that is just astronomical for our state and for our country – the opioid epidemic. That’s the number one challenge for health today in our communities. It’s just stunning how devastating this problem is.
Do you see these two committees as related?
I don’t know how you pull any of these issues apart. I think at some level things get like spaghetti, and that’s maybe part of our challenge right now. We keep thinking there’s one solution and that is just simply not the case. One of the big gaffes we’ve made in technology and engineering is saying, I can solve this problem. But you can’t always solve it. You can contribute. You might help do something that makes it better. But this is not a problem that you’re going to be able to solve.
If you get down to the real brass tracks of violence, it’s a human decision. It’s not an internet decision. It’s not a traffic stoplight decision. It’s not a bridge-falling-down decision that civil engineers can fix. This is a human decision. So where does engineering and technology fit in? It fits in because technology and engineering are one part of the human existence, and within that part we should do good things.
What is the committee’s mission?
There’s a real challenge in the United States to do work around gun violence because of the Second Amendment. It’s not how the amendment is written; it’s that it is such a legally charged issue. Everything ends up being challenged. Everything ends up becoming a legal issue, regardless of perspective. It causes government at all levels difficulty in being able to do the right thing, because the polarization around guns in America is extraordinary.
So, what the governor has done here is work around the politics. He’s declared gun violence a public health crisis. People are getting killed: he’s framed that as a health emergency. That takes it outside the political argument of gun ownership or background checks and instead says, we’ve got a serious health problem so let’s work the problem.
Can you expand on why an engineer would be useful on public policy committees like this one?
One of the people sitting next to me at our meeting lost several children to gun violence. This issue is her life. She is very educated on the subject and very passionate about it, as you would expect someone to be. Then, there were law enforcement officials who deal with gun violence every day. Going to the first meeting, I would say I was 50-50 on whether I would resign the spot – not because I’m not interested but because I thought maybe I’m taking the spot of somebody who could do more. But as I was listening to the conversation going on around me, I heard all sorts of technical words from people who are not engineers and who are not technical. And so I kind of grabbed onto those and thought, okay, maybe here’s something I can contribute.
There was a lot of talk about data, a lot of talk about information clearinghouses. And a lot of that today is found in what’s called metadata. Well, how the heck do you even find it? I think I could add some value there.
The people who are involved in trying to solve these problems are dealing with a crisis. The analogy is, there’s an emergency room in the hospital and then there’s healthcare in the hospital – and a lot of the people we’re working with here are in the ER. They’re dealing with the raw, day-to-day emergency of gun violence. They’re dealing with the at-risk kids and they don’t have room for error.
The ability for someone to be standing in the background saying, wait, let’s be thoughtful, let’s identify roadblocks, let’s identify changes that can be made … they’re going to help these individuals in the trenches. I have an opportunity to be one of those who takes a step back and looks a little more broadly. There are issues of logistics and systems thinking and open-ended problem solving and quantitative formulations, and those are things that are part of the engineer’s education. That diversity of thought and diversity of problem-solving is what they’re seeking on these boards. That’s really a part of the service of this university.
How can technology support your role?
In facing these problems, many are using the same tools they were using 20 or 30 years ago – it’s word of mouth and it’s talking and it’s living in the community and reaching out to at-risk kids. But today, we have a huge technological capability for very granular assessments of people’s behaviors. Your Amazon account knows what you’re going to buy next before you buy it. Technology is becoming a good tool in understanding, and sometimes predicting, individual behavior.
So at that first meeting I was asking, what kinds of granular information do you have about at-risk people? Well, the room went to crickets. And Chuck (Ramsey) jumped on this – he said, Joe, I want to know about ‘granular.’ There is a lot of information that we can gather on potentially at-risk individuals. There’s a lot we can do to help the minister or the priest or the social worker who’s in the community. I just think there’s a technological overlay that could be put over these issues.
One of the district attorneys in that meeting said, ‘After we have a homicide, the first thing we do is go and look at the social media. Because typically the murder’s been announced in advance.’ And so, the person who’s at-risk of becoming violent has some data that we could access. If Amazon can tell me what I’m going to buy before I buy it, we may to be able to tell, this person’s on the edge. And this might be wonderful for the minister, the priest, the social worker who can have some kind of personal response. We have real capacity today to understand elements of human behavior at the speed of light.
What are the deliverables and how will your task play a part?
So, we have a report due in February to Chief Ramsey. As we go forward and prepare, ideally I’d like to see my contribution baked in throughout the whole report. We live in the technological era and this data and ways to collect it are all around us. I’d like to see them being thought of in a positive way, as part of these potential sections on recommendations. I would not like to see data as a stand-alone section. I’d like to see it used throughout to complement all the actionables.
How does your work with the Peace Engineering program impact this committee?
You know, this Peace Engineering program – we’re the only one in the nation. Today, we’re it! It’s a unique thing. When people find out about it, they want to bring our area of expertise to bear on these problems They say, wait, we’re working on gun control and we have a program in peace engineering and we’re in Philadelphia, which is the heart of the social gun violence. You look at the stats and Philadelphia dominates. So, when we say we have peace engineering here, that’s how we’re being connected with these kinds of issues.
Can you describe Peace Engineering at the College of Engineering?
One of the goals of our Peace Engineering program is to learn the challenges of communities first-hand through the eyes of people and organizations committed to violence reduction. We seek to learn what roadblocks exist, and ask the question ”can engineering help?” In those cases where the answer is yes, then we would like to be a resource. Policies, technologies, and people all contribute to these challenges – a single-pronged approach to address them simply won’t work. Peace Engineering works to integrate the technical elements into the social policy.
I’d love to have a classroom of Drexel College of Engineering students challenged on a problem related to reducing community gun violence. I can’t imagine how many ideas would result! I really believe that our students and faculty can create collaborations between currently disparate organizations to help in crises like gun violence here in Pennsylvania. Our students are capable of remarkable things – and they love meaningful work.