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For Transparency Advocates, NYPD Crime Map is Just A Starting Point

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, December 10 2013

Murder rate per population of 1,000 (NYPD Crime Map)

The NYPD on Sunday released a map showing the locations of major felony incidents such as murders, rape, grand larceny and robbery within the past two years, but transparency advocates say that the new map is just a starting point in the effort to gain more transparency.

The NYPD's map came in response to City Council legislation passed earlier this year requiring the Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications to maintain a map that "visually display[s] the aggregate monthly, yearly and year-to-date totals for the current and the most recent prior calendar years for each class of crime that is reported to the New York city police department, or for which an arrest was made, including crimes that occurred in parks and subway stations. Such map shall be searchable by address, zip code, and patrol precinct." Ahead of the City Council passing the bill unanimously in April, lead sponsor Bronx City Council member Fernando Cabrera, chair of the Technology Committee, praised in a statement that the bill "is very significant in providing greater accessibility and transparency to each class of crime that is reported to the police ... the bill will enable elected officials, community organizations, and the general public to localize current high crime areas and use resources more strategically and efficiently."

In the press release announcing the map, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said that "this administration has relied on data to drive its crime fighting, and this map helps enhance New Yorkers’ and researchers’ understanding of where felony and violent crime persists.”

Users can see the locations of specific reported crimes if they zoom in to the Google Map. The basic zoom level of the map shows the shaded crime rate of the police precincts per population of 1,000 based on the census, and there is also a heat map view. Currently users can view the data monthly and annually from January 2012 until October of this year.

The NYPD warns about interpreting the map carefully, since areas like Midtown have high crime rates, but also have larger daytime populations compared with the resident population. Users can also filter the map by different types of crime. While Midtown had the highest overall crime rate in the year-to-date, murder rates are highest in areas such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and the Bronx, rape rates are highest in Midtown, Harlem, Wards Island and Brownsville, while Greenpoint has a high rate of grand larcenies of motor vehicles. When zoomed in, users can click on the individual points to see what individual crime was reported, but there is no further information on the circumstances of the crime.

Noel Hidalgo, co-founder and executive director of BetaNYC, New York City's Code for America brigade, said he could not recall any outreach to transparency or technology advocates when the bill was being discussed. "From my point of view it was shocking to see this bill touted as a good bill even though it legislated a user interface," he said. "This is a minimum viable product for the NYPD and for the City Council members, and that's great that they are interested in this kind of tool, but now it's up to the citizen hackers as well as the good government and public safety groups to work to make this tool more useable," he said.

He suggested that top priorities would be a more user-friendly interface, machine-readable access to the underlying data rather than what is currently available in spreadsheets and PDFs, daily or weekly instead of monthly updates, and more details on the crime incidents themselves, which would make it easier to provide tools to local Community Boards seeking public safety information. He said the next step would be gathering user feedback on what kind of updates members of the public would like to see. Hidalgo has been leading an effort with other members of BetaNYC to author the People's Roadmap to a Digital New York City ahead of the mayoral transition, which among many other points emphasizes the importance of making map data accessible and available through APIs.

"The map would have been great in 2000, but in 2013, releasing the map without the underlying data is a failed exercise in open government," John Kaehny, co-chair of the NYC Transparency Working Group and executive director of Reinvent Albany, wrote in an email, adding that the group was not involved with the legislation. "The map itself is primitive compared to Seattle's and other cities, which show different icons for different crimes, have a description of the type of crime in the hover box and allow viewing of the actual police report."

John McCarthy, Deputy Commissioner for Public Information for the NYPD, said in a brief interview Monday that it was important to balance privacy, especially in areas with single-occupancy homes, with the desire for information. "But there's certainly other areas where you can build out more on the map," he said. "We will certainly track how this is working and take feedback that people will provide on what they find useful and possibly what could be improved." He also said the NYPD would work with the City Council regarding other datapoints City Council members indicate are of interest, and explore more machine-readable access, since "you want researchers and members of the public and residents to be able to use the information, use the data in whatever way they can."

The lack of more contextual information prompts a user to make speculative assumptions by necessity. For example, in the 108th precinct in Queens, covering Long Island City, Sunnyside and Woodside, 14 rapes were reported in the last year, including one on Skillman Avenue between 45th and 46th street, a generally quiet residential area. Since there is no further information on time of day, date or whether the incident occurred inside or outside, and the NYPD never sent out a media release about a rape incident in the precinct or searching for a suspect, a user can only assume that the incident was a domestic case inside involving individuals known to each other, rather than a random attack on the street.

Detail view of NYPD crime map

McCarthy said one complicating factor in that and similar crime reports is when incidents are recorded by cross street, but also said that was the kind of feedback that was helpful to the NYPD, and could inform future adjustments that specify whether an incident occurred inside or outside.

On Facebook, Council member Cabrera wrote in response to a comment that he would hold a hearing in order to improve the map and would welcome suggestions.

Among the datasets the NYPD is scheduled to release to the Open Data portal under the city's Open Data compliance plan are an annual breakdown of enforcement by crime and select indicators including shootings, firearms, and juveniles, by February 2016, weekly city-wide crime statistics by March 2017 and annual Stop, Question and Frisk reports by July 2014.

Given the difficulty of accessing NYPD data, many developers have taken the matter into their own hands. In July, developer John Krauss scraped intersection collision data from NYPD PDFs, with the help of some advocacy groups, to create a Crashmapper platform. Gothamist reported Sunday on how one Reddit user drew on news reports and unauthorized accounts posting scanner reports to map shootings with injuries earlier this year, and then another Reddit user recently overlaid that data with income data from the census. As Gothamist noted, citing a Daily News article, Kelly recently said that last year "97% of all shooting victims were black or Hispanic and reside in low-income neighborhoods."

From 2009 to 2011, the New York Times oversaw and updated its own homicide map, complementing NYPD data with court records, city medical examiner data and news reporting, and allowing users to search by location, month and time of day, race and ethnicity of victim and perpetrator, sex of the victim and perpetrator, age of the victim and perpetrator and the weapon used, and in some instances indicating the primary motive, such as "drugs" or "dispute."

Jordan Anderson, a senior developer at Streeteasy, noted on Twitter that the underlying map data is accessible through Google APIs, but he also suggested that the New York City platform could not compare to the Chicago Tribune's Crime in Chicago project, which maps daily crime reports from the city, highlighting type of crime and location, such as apartment, hotel or street. John Keefe, Data News Team Editor for WNYC, on Twitter pointed to the Los Angeles Times' crime mapping platform, with daily updates drawing on data from the LAPD, the L.A. County Sheriff and the Times' own analysis.

On Friday, theNabe and DNAinfo reported that the NYPD had ordered police precincts to stop offering local news outlets incident reports that they draw on for police blotters, directing all such requests to the NYPD's public information office, or DCPI.