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A Million Stories in the [redacted] City: How Seattle Handles Open Crime Data

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, February 9 2011

Photo: Bryce Edwards / Flickr

This month, Seattle is celebrating the first anniversary of its open data portal, Data.Seattle.Gov, which is one of the most inclusive data warehouses offered by any city so far.

Seattle CIO Bill Schrier told me in a recent interview that he was surprised at how quickly he was able to make data public on individual crimes, information that police departments are not usually eager to give up right away. (Washington, D.C. updates machine-readable crime data in real time and San Francisco, Ca., provides a dataset updated on a rolling basis.)

It seems like Seattle, which has been producing crime data in this way for about eight months of Data.Seattle.gov's one-year run so far, has figured out a way to address a problem that many cities share. So I asked Seattle Police Department Assistant Chief Dick Reed, in charge of the city's field support bureau, which covers operations, how they did it.

"There will always be that balancing [of] the right of the public to know what the policing agency is doing versus the privacy of the people who are making the complaints and involved in the event," Reed told me.

To try to reach that balance, the city decided to release a set of information about each incident on data.seattle.gov as soon as 12 hours after it occurs. Users who create a profile on the seattle.gov website can also access heavily redacted readouts of police reports about each incident, when they're available.

"The reports that generate this information are still available for public disclosure as they always have been," Reed told me, "but we're erring on the side of protecting the privacy of victims and witnesses, and the potential harm of identifying, yes, the police car you saw down the block was investigating the rape of a 10-year-old."

It's a compromise on transparency that shows more willingness to default to open than some other police departments. In New York City, for example, the police department's extension to releasing information online is limited to statistical reports released by individual precincts, in PDF format.

In Seattle, people can find information online about when and where a crime was reported, and what type of crime the responding officer found it to be. (A separate dataset of 911 call reports is also available.) Who was involved and the narrative describing what happened, however, usually isn't: in order to get that information, the public-records-searcher would have to make a public records request.

"Previously, we had standalone PCs with printers in each of the five precincts so members of the public could do searches and print off the redacted information that was applicable to their precinct," Reed said.

That, too, has changed: Now public records requests are handled centrally. He says this is saving time and money, but it's hard to quantify exactly how much of either. While the city's expectation was that putting more information online would lower the number of public records requests, so far, he says, the volume of requests continues to go up.

"I don't know if we've blunted the speed of those requests," he told me.