Releasing crime data is important to keeping the public informed about what is happening where they live, work, and play. The information from crime reports, specifically, fuels a wide variety of news stories and apps that keep people updated on important public safety issues. Improving the quality and format of crime data releases would help encourage the continued creation of these kinds of stories and apps and maximize their impact, keeping the public better informed about an issue that many local governments already closely track.
There are several steps those who control crime data could take to improve the quality and formats of the information, especially related to crime reports. Many of these ideas, outlined below, can be found in our Open Data Policy Guidelines.
1. Mandate open formats, require public information to be posted online, remove restrictions for access, and remove restrictions on reuse of information — Crime data would benefit from being made more technically open. That means municipalities should explore opportunities to share the data online in formats that are non-proprietary, searchable, sortable, and machine-readable, and without restrictions for accessing and reusing that information. Without following these basic tenants, the data remains locked up in inaccessible formats or restrictive licenses that not only prevent the public from accessing the information on their own, but could cause problems for governments needing to share or analyze data that spans multiple jurisdictions or departments, as well.
2. Mandate ongoing data publication and updates and create a public, comprehensive list of all information holdings — Timeliness is key for crime data. Having data that lags by months (or a year or more, as with the federal compilation of local crime data) doesn’t help keep the public informed about what’s happening now in their neighborhoods. Technology has enabled faster and more continual, real-time sharing of this vital information, and governments should use that opportunity to bolster public access.
Creating a public, comprehensive list of information related to crime would also help the public understand what data is gathered, what is released, which government departments or jurisdictions monitor crime data, and acknowledge what information is kept private. This kind of listing would be especially helpful for reporters looking to dig deeper into specific incidents or do investigative reporting about details that go beyond what’s released publicly.
3. Appropriately safeguard sensitive information — Details are important with crime data, but some details need to be safeguarded to protect those impacted by the incident. Those who hold crime data need to think about redacting information that could infringe on the privacy or security of people (whether they are police officers, victims, witnesses, or suspects), though these privacy exemptions should not be a barrier to data release. Rather, exemptions should be balance-tested against the public interest in accessing that information.
4. Create permanent, lasting access to data — Maintaining public access to crime data is especially important as crime trends change over time and are a prime dataset for reporters and researchers to use in investigations (not to mention for the government itself as it looks to reduce crime). This kind of historical data can help show changes in a city over time — for better or for worse — and help reveal important narratives about the community and the effects of policies.
5. Create processes to ensure data quality — Data quality, for crime, has to strike a careful balance between its completeness (a necessity for reuse, research, and analysis) and the privacy concerns of those impacted by crime. This can be a difficult task: many local governments choose to obfuscate crime data to the block level to protect the addresses of those involved (some crime map providers even appear to do this automatically). Privacy and safety concerns are complicated, but not impossible, and there are many organizations exploring the necessary judgment calls and complexities involved.
6. Provide definitions with data as to how crimes are defined — Explaining the different kinds of crime (especially if they differ at all from the FBI definitions) is important to helping people understand what actually occurred. Without this context, users viewing crime data or crime maps are left to wonder what the thresholds are for different crime categories, a challenge to research and analysis alike.
Thanks to Justin McCrary, Laura Meixell, Tom Schenk, and Isaiah Thompson for contributing information to this post.
Photo by Tex Texan via Flickr