On this year’s “Top 50 Rattiest Cities,” Washington, D.C. came in at fifth, highlighting the city’s notorious rat problem. After countless attempts by municipal leadership to exterminate the furry creatures, The Lab @ DC wants to use data to properly address the city’s rat problem to reduce the number of rodents running around the city.

As temperatures drop, more rats are scurrying into homes, stores, and other dwellings in search of warmth and food. According to WAMU at the American University in D.C., the number of complaints regarding rat sightings in the D.C. area nearly doubled between 2015 and 2017. Before resorting to The Lab @ DC, the municipality used run-of-the-mill extermination methods – one of which entailed hiring streets cats to hunt the rodents down.

The Lab @ DC tries to predict which parts of D.C. are more likely to be infested with rats based on a number of environmental factors. Previously, data on rat sightings was collected based on records of sightings reported through 311 calls, which have proven to be inaccurate and prejudiced. According to WAMU, the kind of information that The Lab collects includes “building age, building condition, population density, number of restaurants, size and condition of alleys, location of sewer grates and the location of parks and community gardens.”

rat problem

Map depicts the possibility of finding rats in D.C. (CC: Office of the Mayor)

The city’s rat problem, however, is not equal in all of D.C.’s neighborhoods. The rat problem in the District of Columbia, for example, has proven to have inherently racist bias, since rat exterminators were historically deployed in more affluent and usually white neighborhoods, rather than neighborhoods inhabited by people of color. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, one activist in the 1960s lured rats from neighborhoods of color and let them loose in white neighborhoods near Georgetown in D.C., saying “[A] D.C. problem usually is not a problem until it is a white problem.” Racism in D.C.’s rat problem was even the subject of a film by Theo Anthony titled Rat Film.

Other approaches that have been taken in cities like New York entail leaving peanut butter, bacon, and oats around trash cans to lure the rats. However, in that case, a PhD student simply wanted to capture the rats to study them. In 2015, Somerville, Massachusetts found that reducing the amount of trash accessible to the rodents decreased the number of rats running around the city. But in D.C.’s case, the city does not want to simply capture and exterminate the rodents, but, rather, to sterilize them and prevent new offspring. With one D.C. resident reporting to The Washington Post that he spotted 13 rats in the span of 20 minutes, The Lab @ DC seems a more appropriate solution.

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