New Orleans based Skip Nicholas owns a fried chicken restaurant and a car wash, and was one of the rappers behind the Southern hit “Nolia Clap.” That makes him a legitimate local celebrity. And his celebrity-dom has made him a conflict mediator who stops murder. While that description might sound like some sort of ungodly hybrid between a superhero and Jerry Springer, the work Nicholas does is actually extremely serious.
People turn to Nicholas to help stop “beef.” Beefing is the New Orleans word of choice to describe people or groups that are having an ongoing dispute outside the realm of the law — the sort of dispute that frequently ends in murder.
New Orleans has one of the highest murder rates in the country — 10 times the national average according to a 2011 study. The report also found that revenge killings and arguments accounted for 43 percent of all these murders in 2009.
A high profile shooting on Mother’s Day that injured 19 people got hacker Travis Laurendine thinking about how homicide was impacting the city. The National Civic Day of Hacking was fast approaching, so he decided to try “hacking the murder rate” for the New Orleans version of the event.
Laurendine was friends with Nicholas through the rap community, and he turned to him for advice. “I was like: you know this inside and out, what do you think would help?” Laurendine said.
Nicholas told Laurendine about a recent mediation experience he’d had. Two guys were beefing and carried guns. The conflict had escalated over time, and it was starting to look like one would try to take the other out. But Nicholas knew both of them, and one of them asked him to help settle the issue.
An intervention was staged, and the two beefers showed up with their entourages to Nicholas’ restaurant. “They both really wanted to stop the beef,” Nicholas remembers. “I told them it didn’t make sense for them to die over nothing.” The entourages agreed, and with their friends (and a local celebrity) asking them to stop, the beefers were able to end the disagreement without looking like they had backed down.
When Laurendine asked Nicholas for hacker app ideas, Nicholas relayed this story and said, “You need to do something like that! You can hit this app, log in, tell them who you’re beefing with, and someone from the neighborhood can come spoil.”
The weekend of May 31st, Laurendine and 6 other developers and designers hacked away, eventually creating the site stopbeef.com. It was a place for people to anonymously submit tips about beef between people in the streets. The goal for the app is to have local celebrities: Preachers, restaurant owners, rappers, Lil Wayne (New Orleans born ‘n bred), or whoever else sign up for stopbeef.com using their Twitter or Facebook accounts.
Then, the people running the app can try to match local celebrities with the beefers who know or follow them on social sites. “It’s like a matchmaking service for mediators,” Laurendine explained. Laurendine thinks if the app works, it will cause a ripple effect in reducing the homicide rate. “Each murder in New Orleans is part of a Web of murder — you kill this guy, and people go retaliate and kill the other guy, and so on…so stopping one murder is like stopping 10 murders.”
Laurendine’s goal is to have professional conflict mediators running the site. That way, they can take the tips, analyze the information, and then work with local celebrities to help mediate conflicts. He’s in discussions with other city and non-profit organizations to try to find a partner.
“Some people have no other option. They don’t want to be murderers but they don’t want to be murdered either,” Laurendine said. “This gives them a way out of the beef that’s not snitching to the cops.”
After submitting the stopbeef app to the government, Laurendine was picked as one of the 15 top “Champions of Change” nationally in civic hacking. He’s headed to the White House to receive recognition tomorrow.
“In a world where there’s apps for someone to come do laundry for you, we have more important problems to solve,” Laurendine said. “If we bring conflict mediation to the digital world it might not be a billion dollar money maker but it will create value.”
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]