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Ears to the Ground

June 01, 2016

Is there a tech solution to gun violence?

When Ralph Clark (MBA 1993) took over as CEO of ShotSpotter in 2010, he inherited a groundbreaking technology and a broken business model. The company uses sensors, strategically placed throughout an urban area, to instantly locate a gunshot and alert police—a system that has been shown to drastically decrease gun use. In a recent study, cities that employ the system saw a 28.8 percent drop in gunfire on average; Fall River, Massachusetts, for example, saw shootings drop by 58 percent. But efficacy hadn’t led to adoption. When Clark arrived, the company had been around for more than a decade and was only active in about 30 cities.

Clark saw the problem: “From a police department point of view, it was a significant and risky IT project,” he says. ShotSpotter systems cost about $250,000 per square mile to install; maintenance and operations—handled by the cities—could total up to $40,000 a year. That was a high bar. So Clark switched to a subscription model: ShotSpotter would eat the upfront cost, operate the system itself, and charge cities an annual $65,000 per square mile for the service. And critically, it stopped taking orders for less than 3 square miles. More coverage leads to better results, Clark says, and a greater likelihood of a city renewing its subscription.

The ShotSpotter process begins with a gunshot, which activates its audio sensors. Data is sent to a cloud-based software system, that triangulates the exact location of the gun and relays that info within seconds to police dispatch centers. The company encourages local police to arrive immediately after a shooting and, even if there’s no victim, start talking to witnesses and knocking on doors. “Our philosophy is all shootings matter, and investigating all shootings matters, even if they don’t result in someone being killed or shot,” Clark says. Most gunshots go unreported, but this system turns every shot into an incident—and an opportunity for officers to show communities that they care, and that they’re responsive.

It’s also the key to ShotSpotter’s preventative abilities. The data and groundwork help police identify patterns and root out the problem: Most repeat shootings in an area actually come from a small number of repeat shooters. Maybe it’s a gang leader. Maybe it’s an illegal gun dealer using a backyard to test products. Find that person, and gunfire goes down.

In the six years since Clark joined, the company has expanded to roughly 90 cities globally—including New York City, where Deputy Police Commissioner Jessica Tisch (MBA 2007, JD 2008) is key to the ShotSpotter partnership. More than 97 percent of clients re-up every year. And ShotSpotter is starting to explore other areas where it can be useful: locating shooters on college campuses, poachers in wildlife refuges, and fishermen who illegally use explosives (harming coral reefs) in Southeast Asia.

But the company’s biggest change will begin taking place later this year. It recently announced a partnership with General Electric, in which ShotSpotter will soon be integrated inside every “intelligent” LED streetlight GE installs around the world. That means no more installation costs; if a city has these lights, it has the ability to locate gunfire. “We just have to flip a switch,” Clark says. And that’s going to change ShotSpotter’s business in a huge way. “Now we’re no longer thinking about per square mile pricing; we can think about entire city deployments.”

Harvard Business School Alumni