With AI, DU Freshman Looks to End Mass Shootings
Students the same age as Shreya Nallapati are sometimes called the “Mass Shooting Generation.” They’re the teens born after the 1999 attack on Littleton’s Columbine High School — the students who have grown up in a world where classroom murders are no longer a shocking, irregular occurrence.
But Nallapati, a freshman at the University of Denver’s Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering & Computer Science, would rather be classified differently. Instead of the generation that has grown up with violence, she wants to be known as the generation that decided to do something about it.
“These problems in the world aren’t necessarily all our fault,” she explains, “but it’s up to us to take it and fix it.”
That’s the idea behind #NeverAgainTech, Nallapati’s data-driven startup, which is working to stop mass shootings before they happen. As a full-time student, Nallapati still puts in 15 to 20 hours each week dissecting the country’s past tragedies — an effort that has earned her attention from Forbes, Smithsonian and the Denver Business Journal, which named her its Youth Tech Leader of the Year.
Together with her team — 200 women across the U.S. who communicate through Slack, ZOOM and other digital meeting platforms — she studies the makeup of the shooters, hoping to create an algorithm that can raise a red flag before someone goes over the edge. That algorithm would consider things like socioeconomic background, location, mental health, family background, access to guns and more.
“No algorithm can actually determine where or when the next mass shooting is,” she says. “There’s an element of randomness, but what we can do is analyze and see what is the constitution of a future mass shooting? We want to have a general idea. We’re not going to pinpoint one specific population or one specific group. But what [is the culminating] combination of factors?”
#NeverAgainTech began when Nallapati was 17, already familiar with school shootings. A family friend was at Arapahoe High School in 2013 when a student shot and killed Claire Davis. But the tipping point came after the 2018 Parkland High School shooting in Florida that claimed 17 lives. Nallapati remembers watching her fellow teenagers fight back, advocating for change. It took her 30 minutes after hearing student Emma Gonzalez speak to form the idea.
“Something inside of me clicked,” she says, “and I decided, ‘This is my time. This is our time.’“
Within hours, she had enlisted help. A post on the National Center for Women in Information Technology Facebook page garnered interest from women of all ages who wanted to help.
As the daughter of two tech-savvy parents — including Suma Nallapati, Colorado’s former secretary of technology and chief information officer — Nallapati may have been destined to entertain an interest in artificial intelligence. But growing up, Shreya never felt the industry tugging at her — that is until the aspiring lawyer had her laptop hacked in high school. (She ultimately had to pay the hackers $200 to get her information back and vowed to prevent others from suffering a similar fate.)
Her career path may have become clear, but that didn’t necessarily make it easy. As a woman of Indian descent, she vividly remembers the boys in her high school cybersecurity group telling her to stick to the more administrative tasks.
As a woman and minority, Nallapati says, “There are so many glass ceilings in this area. There has been additional pressure, but there has also been this newfound passion and fire inside of me to make it a better place for the upcoming generation.”
That passion led to a Boettcher Scholarship for Nallapati, who chose to attend DU for its personal touch and what she describes as a unique approach to the tech field. “There’s this aspect of innovation and applying a human aspect to technology,” she says. “Unlike Silicon Valley, where it’s about creating the next startup, DU thinks more like: ‘OK, this technology is impressive, but how can we help out everyday people?’”
Ultimately, Nallapati says, that human touch will make a difference. Although her Generation Z may fit its tech-driven stereotype, there is an opportunity to use cell phones and social media to empower.
It’s why she points to a DU creative writing camp as one of the most valuable summer activities she participated in as a kid.
“My family is hard, technical coders,” she says. “But this writing camp was so important to me, because it taught me to understand the humanities perspective of this.”
For the rest of 2019, Nallapati is focused on expanding #NeverAgainTech’s breadth of research and data, hoping to ultimately involve law enforcement agencies and the FBI. Her team also developed a mental health app focused on treating PTSD symptoms of gun violence survivors, which will be rolled out next month in Parkland, Rio de Janeiro and Newton, Connecticut.
But it's just as important for the company to spark communication: upping its presence on social media platforms and starting conversations among parents, law enforcement and policy makers. She knows that the algorithm she is developing is only a part of the battle.
“I want to see myself becoming more of a human-minded engineer or a human-minded entrepreneur,” she says. “#NeverAgainTech isn’t just the coding and AI part. It’s the human passion and connection.”