Boston recorded 38 homicides and 163 shooting incidents in 2021. Each of these events have ripples of impact on individuals, families and neighborhoods. And each triggers a flurry of response from city, county and state agencies, local non-profits and neighborhood organizations. As people reel, organizations step in to support, investigate, assess, intervene. But too often the sum of these parts doesn't coalesce into a coherent whole.
Boston is a well-resourced city, with a range of organizations and services to support those impacted by shootings, to serve communities in the aftermath and to intervene with the hope of preventing retaliation. There are many state and local agencies and service organizations that move into action to support an individual and community. However, gaps remain in who receives help, how, and through what channels.
Our role was to untangle this complex ecosystem and to enable this group of stakeholders to work towards greater alignment and coordination.
We worked with the City of Boston's Office of Public Safety along with 20 other stakeholders (neighborhood entities, law enforcement, the District Attorney's office, the Public Health Commission, community-based organizations, and housing organizations) to map the City's response to a shooting.
Through a series of interviews with these stakeholders, we were able to develop a comprehensive understanding of the process and response. We drew from these findings to design a set of maps to empower the ecosystem to identify opportunities for change.
The first set of maps focus on the interactions that individuals related to the shooting incident have with the range organizations. Maps highlight services and interactions for different types of shooting engagement, illuminating who is served, when, how and by whom.
The maps follow the type of impacted person through stages of the shooting incident and aftermath, clarifying which organizations interact with the individual during each stage.
The invisible interactions that occur outside of the structured system were also brought into the maps. By differentiating protocolized and circumstantial interactions (e.g. connecting with a service provider through word of mouth is a circumstantial interaction), we are able to provide a holistic representation that includes the often invisible supports that may be critical to the system and to people, but are not formally structured or incorporated.
A second map approaches a shooting incident from the perspective of the agencies and service providers responding to an event. By documenting the flow of stakeholders, information, and communication, the map reveals how support is structured based on the nature of the event and provides a scaffold to identify opportunities to increase coordination across the landscape.
Together, these tools identify places where program design, protocols, or communications can be more intentional between organizations and within systems to address the trauma that individuals and communities can experience following a shooting.
"When I saw these I felt validated, that all the gaslighting I'd experienced was real. I've been told this isn't as bad as you think. This made it clear that what I was feeling and experiencing was real." — City of Boston stakeholder
This mapping was a process of understanding the people, dynamics, relationships, and protocols (both structured and organic) across the system. The maps highlight information by making what is too often unspoken or implicit, a language spoken only by system insiders, accessible and navigable to a variety of people.
The process of mapping shooting response in Boston makes evident the lack of transparency within this system. We found that information that is available to the public is scarce. A deeper dive into secondary learning reveals outdated data that is hard to decode. The best source of information has been interviews with system stakeholders, available to our design team only because of the access and relative power we have entering these dialogues.
Our interview process spanned city, county and state agencies, as well as local non-profits and neighborhood organizations. As we learned, the need for more learning expanded. Shooting responses touch organizations across systems and sectors, including: law enforcement, legal, healthcare, youth, violence prevention, trauma response, housing, and more. The more we sought to clarify, the more there was to be illuminated.
This interview-by-interview process of revealing the dynamics that make a system tick also exemplifies why system change is so difficult. It demonstrated how many people and organizations have to be bought into and protocolized into any changes. It highlighted the reality that power is distributed unevenly across a system, and that incentives can be misaligned with what is right for organizations or stakeholders, at times in conflict with user needs or benefits.
In holding this range of information, the set of maps served to illuminate a range of opportunities.
The mapping process confirmed for us the power of clarity in information, that simply getting the information down in a place that is accessible and shared has value.
These maps aligned stakeholders from across the system, whether between different departments or different organizations. This alignment served to bring people together to observe within the current state who is being served and how.
For example, the interviews revealed the different "languages" that stakeholders across a system speak. Each organization has its own internal vernacular and acronyms, reflecting the processes, perspectives, and values that it holds. Often these languages don't align, creating an alphabet soup of steps, activities, or roles for users to navigate.
By integrating these into a common set of tools, we're able to begin to cut through and align languages. Decisions around the framework to use for mapping drive alignment of variables. In the interaction maps, for example, the rings surrounding the impacted party follow stages of the journey following a shooting. These can serve to organize response and coordinate across stakeholders.
Our work highlighted the deeply relational ways that current systems work. Nearly every person that we interviewed told us that their effectiveness is based on who they know and the trust they've built with those folks. While this is beautiful to see in action, it's also risky.
This relational way of working places much dependence on non-protocolized interactions. Functionality, too often, relies on folks going out of their way to make the right thing happen despite rather than because of the structures in place. Designers often focus on interactions, processes, or tools created with intention—the tangible and designed. But we find in our work that this invisible force of interpersonal connection is way more powerful, and often quite fragile.
By making visible these informal connections and incidental modes of service, it allows system stakeholders to make more intentional decisions about whether and how these services should be scaled equitable.
Mapping provides the opportunity to think also about who the system seeks to support. The maps make clear that resources are not distributed evenly across impacted populations. For example, supports are provided differently to families of victims depending if they die – or are simply shot. While the difference is not unimportant, many of the services (e.g. mental health supports, neighborhood safety) are relevant in both scenarios.
Protocols differ based on the individual's role, relationship, willingness to speak up, and other factors that speak to values and incentives of the system that go beyond violence intervention and prevention. Even a detail like whether a person dies on the scene or at hospital can impact the level of service delivery for their family and loved ones.
Putting these facts side-by-side allows system stakeholders to face the judgments that protocols enshrine – and to discuss the validity of them.
The mapping work highlighted a number of logistical realities. It made clear the pivotal places and spaces where service delivery could be better codified. For example, the funeral is a key moment for many service providers, most of which named this as a place where their team will show up, but not in coordination with others.
The maps highlight through line players and opportunities to better maximize these consistencies. For example, the police are a key node of communication, but are not optimized for support – because of organizational silos, service functions and neighborhood trust.
And mapping reveals how supports play out over time. Understandably, there is a lot of attention in the immediate aftermath of a shooting, when response time is measured in hours and then days. A lot of resources are poured into the family during these early times. However, we also know that family's needs extend long after an incident, as they wrestle with housing, safety and mental health impacts. While the needs continue, the supports wane after the weeks following a shooting.
Making the implicit visible
Finally, these maps offer the hope for pervasive impact. Each shooting event is both a tragedy and an opportunity. They make visible webs of harm and undercurrents of relationships. The majority of shootings in Boston are driven by a few hundred families; we are a small city with deeply enmeshed intergenerational relationships – and the trauma held by these. Each shooting is an opportunity to shift trajectories by rallying these resources.
These maps formed the foundation for ongoing work across these stakeholders. We are currently engaged with stakeholders from a range of perspectives represented in these maps on a program that brings system-involved youth into a restorative justice and co-design process to reimagine juvenile diversion. Mapping the system helped us to shape the appropriate team of partners to engage both young people and the system around change.