Is Your City’s Crime Data Private Property?

Adam Wisnieski at the Crime Report: “In February, the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) announced it was moving into a new era of transparency and openness with the launch of a new public crime map.
“Crime analysis and mapping data is now in the hands of the city’s citizens,” reads the first line of the press release.
According to the release, the MPD will feed incident report data to RAIDS (Regional Analysis and Information Data Sharing) Online, a nationwide crime map operated by crime analysis software company BAIR Analytics.
Since the announcement, Minneapolis residents have used RAIDS to look at reports of murder, robbery, burglary, assault, rape and other crimes reported in their neighborhoods on a sleek, easy-to-use map, which includes data as recent as yesterday.
On the surface, it’s a major leap forward for transparency in Minneapolis. But some question why the data feed is given exclusively to a single private company.
Transparency advocates argue in fact that the data is not truly in the hands of the city’s residents until citizens can download the raw data so they can analyze, chart or map it on their own.
“For it to actually be open data, it needs to be available to the public in machine readable format,” said Lauren Reid, senior public affairs manager for Code for America, a national non-profit that promotes participation in government through technology.
“Anybody should be able to go download it and read it if they want. That’s open data.”
The Open Knowledge Foundation, a national non-profit that advocates for more government openness, argues open data is important so citizens can participate and engage government in a way that was not possible before.
“Much of the time, citizens are only able to engage with their own governance sporadically — maybe just at an election every 4 or 5 years,” reads the Open Knowledge website. “By opening up data, citizens are enabled to be much more directly informed and involved in decision-making.
“This is more than transparency: it’s about making a full ‘read/write’ society — not just about knowing what is happening in the process of governance, but being able to contribute to it.”.
Minneapolis is not alone.
As Americans demand more information on criminal activity from the government, police departments are flocking to private companies to help them get the information into the public domain.
For many U.S. cities, hooking up with these third-party mapping vendors is the most public their police department has ever been. But the trend has started a messy debate about how “public” the public data actually is.
Outsourcing Makes It Easy
For police departments, outsourcing the presentation of their crime data to a private firm is an easy decision.
Most of the crime mapping sites are free or cost very little. (The Omega Group’s charges between $600 and $2,400 per year, depending on the size of the agency.)
The department chooses what information it wants to provide. Once the system is set up, the data flows to the companies and then to the public without a lot of effort on behalf of the department.
For the most part, the move doesn’t need legislative approval, just a memorandum of understanding. A police department can even fulfill a new law requiring a public crime map by releasing report data through one of these vendors.
Commander Scott Gerlicher of the MPD’s Strategic Information and Crime Analysis Division says the software has saved the department time.
“I don’t think we are entertaining quite as many requests from the media or the public,” he told The Crime Report. “Plus the price was right: it was free.”
The companies that run some of the most popular sites — The Omega Group’s, Public Engines’ CrimeReports and BAIR Analytics’ RAIDS — are in the business of selling crime analysis and mapping software to police departments.
Some departments buy internal software from these companies; though some cities, like Minneapolis, just use RAIDS’ free map and have no contracts with BAIR for internal software.
Susan Smith, director of operations at BAIR Analytics, said the goal of RAIDS is to create one national map that includes all crime reports from across all jurisdictions and departments (state and local police).
For people who live near or at the edge of a city line, finding relevant crime data can be hard.
The MPD’s Gerlicher said that was one reason his department chose RAIDS — because many police agencies in the Minneapolis area had already hooked up with the firm.
The operators of these crime maps say they provide a community service.
“We try to get as many agencies as we possibly can. We truly believe this is a good service for the community,” says Gabriela Coverdale, a marketing director at the Omega Group.
Raw Data ‘Off Limits’
However, the sites do not allow the public to download any of the raw data and prohibit anyone from “scraping,” using a program to automatically pull the data from their maps.
In Minneapolis, the police department continues to post PDFs and excel spreadsheets with data, but only RAIDS gets a feed with the most recent data.
Alan Palazzolo, a Code for America fellow who works as an interactive developer for the online non-profit newspaper MinnPost, used monthly reports from the MPD to build a crime application with a map and geographic-oriented chart of crime in Minneapolis.
Nevertheless, he finds the new tool limiting.
“[The MPD’s] ability to actually put out more data, and more timely data, really opens things up,” he said. “It’s great, but they are not doing that with us.”
According to Palazzolo, the arrangement gives BAIR a market advantage that effectively prevents its data from being used for purposes it cannot control.
“Having granular, complete, and historical data would allow us to do more in-depth analysis,” wrote Palazzolo and Kaeti Hinck in an article in MinnPost last year.
“Granular data would allow us to look at smaller areas,” reads the article. “[N]eighborhoods are a somewhat arbitrary boundary when it comes to crime. Often high crime is isolated to a couple of blocks, but aggregated data does not allow us to explore this.
“More complete data would allow us to look at factors like exact locations, time of day, demographic issues, and detailed categories (like bike theft).”
The question of preference gets even messier when looking at another national crime mapping website called SpotCrime.
Unlike the other third-party mapping sites, SpotCrime is not in the business of selling crime analysis software to police departments. It operates more like a newspaper — a newspaper focused solely on the police blotter pages — and makes money off advertising.
Years ago, SpotCrime requested and received crime report data via e-mail from the Minneapolis Police Department and mapped the data on its website. According to SpotCrime owner Colin Drane, the MPD stopped sending e-mails when terminals were set up in the police department for the public to access the data.
So he instead started going through the painstaking process of transferring data from PDFs the MPD posted online and mapping them.
When the MPD hooked up with RAIDS in February, Drane asked for the same feed and was denied. He says more and more police departments around the country are hooking up with one of his competitors and not giving him the same timely data.
The MPD said it prefers RAIDS over SpotCrime and criticized some of the advertisements on SpotCrime.
“We’re not about supporting ad money,” said Gerlicher.
Drane believes all crime data in every city should be open to everyone, in order to prevent any single firm from monopolizing how the information is presented and used.
“The onus needs to be on the public agencies,” he adds. “They need to be fair with the data and they need to be fair with the public.” he said.
Transparency advocates worry that the trend is going in the opposite direction.
Ohio’s Columbus Police Department, for example, recently discontinued its public crime statistic feed and started giving the data exclusively to RAIDS.
The Columbus Dispatch wrote that the new system had less information than the old…”