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 CrimeMapping.com 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 CrimeMapping.com, 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.
"Before the switch, the public could read about incidents across the city,” the paper reported in its Justice Insider column on April 1. “Each offense report was assigned a number and listed the type of crime, the location, any property that was stolen or damaged, the name of the reporting party or victim, any arrested suspects and a short — and often interesting — narrative by the reporting officer.
"Now, the public sees just one line that lists the report number, location, type of crime and date it occurred. No narrative, no victims, no property."
For the open data crowd, a municipality releasing crime stats exclusively to a third-party mapping site is not good enough.
The U.S. City Open Data Census, a site formed by the Open Knowledge Foundation, Sunlight Foundation and Code for America, grades cities on how open they are with their crime data.
While cities like Chicago, Boston and Seattle — which have set the bar pretty high for open data from a major municipality — have scores of 100 percent, Minneapolis received a grade of 25 percent.
The main reason: "The data is available via a third party vendor who places restriction on the sharing and use of the information. It is not available in an open format."
So why don't these companies simply let the public download the raw data?
The Omega Group’s Coverdale says it's about privacy and getting the right information to the public.
"There are a lot of things you have to be careful with,” she explains. “You are talking about peoples' lives. ...you've got to be very careful not to jeopardize them at all.
"We have a very high level of accuracy and we really do care about the quality of the data that we represent on the site because we want to make sure we are giving the right information to the public."
She also said it makes sense for a police department to only give to one company because otherwise, "it would be confusing to the community."
Drane counters that monopoly control over public records is a disservice to the community.
In 2011, Public Engines sued SpotCrime for scraping data off its CrimeReports map. Although Drane claimed he had the right to the data because it was on the public record, he agreed to a settlement that committed him to stop scraping data.
For some cities, the free crime mapping sites represent a major advance in open government. In January, Detroit went from providing cumbersome PDFs to deploying CrimeMapping.com's slick interactive map.
But as technology makes it easier than ever for governments to release raw data to the public, and as the public has new tools to analyze and dissect that data, the fear is that after an easy hookup with one of these private vendors, truly “open data” will become a distant hope.
While efforts to make more crime information available are “a step in the right direction,” Reid says, “It’s not what we are looking for."
Minneapolis Councilman Andrew Johnson, the first IT professional to serve on Minneapolis' Council, hopes the MPD's move to work with RAIDS is just a first step as well.
Johnson doesn't understand why the MPD has chosen to give RAIDS exclusive access to the MPD's application programming interface, more commonly referred to as API.
"The fact is if we have this API available for RAIDS, why not make it available for everyone?” he told The Crime Report. "My focus is making sure the data itself is open and accessible."
He thinks RAIDS is a great tool – but as long as the data remains under private control, journalists, researchers and developers will be hampered in their efforts to help citizens understand the scope and nature of crime in their cities and neighborhoods.
“So why the heck wouldn’t we open the API up to everyone?"
Drane said he plans to keep asking for raw data feeds no matter how many times he gets shot down.
“I truly believe being transparent with crime data actually helps reduce crime; dialing it down does the opposite," he says.
EDITORS NOTE: For further reading on this issue, see TCR’s Feb 27, 2014 story, “Mapping Crime: the NYPD Falls Behind”
Adam Wisnieski is a freelance writer from the Bronx. You can follow him on Twitter @adamthewiz. He welcomes comments from readers.