Don Hunt, a Ph. D. student at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, has received funding for his dissertation work from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) Graduate Research Fellowship. He was one of only six doctoral students nationwide awarded with the fellowship this year.
Next spring, Hunt is expected to graduate with his third degree from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 2011 and master’s degree in 2013, both in criminology, he began working on his Ph. D., where he discovered his passion for research and data analysis.
Hunt runs the fraud analytics department at Worldpay US, one of the largest processors of transactions globally, where he has worked since 2004. The department deals with crimes focused on fraud, laundering and identity theft, with a goal of “getting ahead of criminals,” Hunt says.
“We take information and run statistical analysis to make our systems better, so they can’t be penetrated in the future,” he says. His department also joins law enforcement in the field to investigate cases of fraud.
Hunt’s background with Worldpay and in law enforcement makes his dissertation, “Exploring the Impact on Crime of Removing Cash from the Economy through the Electronic Benefits Transfer Program,” a natural fit.
“Before the Electronic Benefits Transfer Program was created, recipients would receive a check on the first of the month and go to check-cashing centers and cash the whole thing,” Hunt explains. “When you’re walking around with all of that money, especially in neighborhoods where the majority of people receive benefits, people are going to take it.”
Recipients now receive a preloaded debit card, which reduces not only the amount of cash on the street, but the monthly $2 million it takes to print and mail benefits checks.
“This streamlined process cut down on costs and reduced crime. Now the questions are, ‘What else can we do to reduce cash in the system? What can we do to help make society safer and more efficient and put funds where they are needed?’” Hunt says. “There have to be other things we can do that lessen risk. From there we can analyze how offenders think and predict future crimes.”
Gerard Ramker, deputy director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, visited the Andrew Young School on February 3 to present Hunt with his award.
“Having a fellowship is prestigious in criminology. I’m really lucky to be awarded this,” Hunt says. His 40-page application outlined his research design and relies on BJS data for control variables in the study.
“With this type of data, where the information is constantly evolving, your techniques have to evolve in tandem to produce more accurate results to better inform policymakers,” Hunt says. “The BJS is looking for innovative ways to use their data, so we’ve come up with a sophisticated analysis method. We used a relatively new technique borrowed mainly from econometrics called ‘fixed effects difference-in-difference’ modeling and strengthened that with a ‘synthetic control’ design.”
“BJS is data-rich, so we’ve created many programs to increase the pool of people that use the data,” said Ramker during his presentation to Hunt. “We had a number of applications for the graduate research fellowship this year. We couldn’t fund all of them, but we funded the best, including Don’s. This is a great project and we look for great things out of it.”
Hunt’s findings will be presented both to the Bureau of Justice Statistics and at the American Society of Criminologists conference this November.
“With any luck, the results will be published in a criminology journal, but I would like to disseminate this to as many outlets as possible,” Hunt says. “I’d like to get this to public policy journals because I think that’s where it will do the most good. You can have all of the data in the world, but without policy, it won’t make an impact.
“I’m just enamored with research and statistics, but we don’t spend a nickel or do anything without policy, so hopefully policymakers see this and recognize it can have an impact. If you’re not doing the research to make the world better, why are you doing it?”