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Missouri Western State University

Students learned how to put crime on the map Friday at Missouri Western State University.

Dr. Steven Ericson from the University of Alabama shared his expertise on the use of geography in crime research as part of Western’s Interdisciplinary Nature of Geography Speaker Series.

Ericson focused his talk on geographic information systems — known as GIS technology — and how social scientists or members of law enforcement use computer software to visualize trends in crime.

For example, Ericson showed the group maps from a study he conducted of the crime that occurred from 2007-12 in a section of downtown Atlanta. Red dots indicated locations where crimes had been committed, with dark clusters covering areas such as a mass transit terminal and the dormitories of Georgia State University.

While law enforcement could use the data to determine how and where to allocate resources, social scientists would sift through the information to try to discover why certain areas were more vulnerable to crime.

“(GIS) allows you to kind of layer and incorporate a lot of different things together to see and pinpoint where crime is happening,” Ericson said. “Depending on what kind of data you have available, you can really pull in all sorts of different things: demographic issues, income, ethnicity, the design of the place.”

In the case of the crimes around the dormitories and other parts of the Georgia State campus, Ericson speculated that the “routine activity theory” of crime played a role. The theory proposes that most crimes are related more to opportunity than causes such as poverty or inequality. For example, high rates of thefts in dormitories likely occurred because students knew each others’ schedules and had the opportunity to take items like computers or electronics that were left unattended.

When GIS technology shows such a trend, police or other groups can address the issue.

“From a social science aspect, the one great benefit is that it allows you to raise awareness with people,” Ericson said. “A lot of research that I’ve done is on a downtown university campus, and a lot of the crime is student-on-student crime. It’s not the stereotypical scary person you don’t know that holds you up at gunpoint.”

The speaker series is sponsored by Missouri Western’s Department of History & Geography and the Missouri Western State University Foundation.

Clinton Thomas can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPThomas.