Technology

Online Crime Map Offers Redacted Reports

Seattle deploys a online crime map that provides citizens links to redacted police reports instantly instead of waiting for days for a report.
by | July 6, 2010

Several cities offer online maps showing where various types of crimes have been committed. However, the map recently deployed by Seattle, Wash. is one of the few to offer links to redacted police reports. The city’s My Neighborhood Maps eliminated a labor-intensive manual process that will free up employees to do other work, according to Bill Schrier, CIO of Seattle. Before deployment of the online map, citizens had to visit police stations to request police reports and typically wait 12 days to receive them. Now, a few simple clicks on the map can get citizens any police reports they need, instantly.

“It helps citizens know what’s going on in their neighborhood,” Schrier remarked. “As they see things that are serious, they might actually be able to help spot crimes, or spot trends in crimes in their neighborhoods, or recognize the method of operation of certain burglars and be able to suggest possible suspects. They can organize themselves into block watches or neighborhood watches.”

Each crime is marked on the map with an icon in one of five colors representing five general categories of crime. By running the mouse cursor over an icon, the user sees a few details about the crime and a link to the redacted police report. Later in July, Schrier plans to release the data on data.seattle.com, a site releasing city data for citizens to program into their own applications. The CIO hopes a Seattle resident will create an application that uses analytics for predicting what crimes are more likely to happen in various sections of the city.

Schrier said generating the reports for citizen-viewing was a nuisance in the past. When police reports arrived at the Seattle Police Department (SPD), an employee redacted any sensitive data with a pen, scanned the report, and then sent it to a server. After that, compact disc sets were made of the reports, which employees distributed manually to the five precincts. Employees then loaded the discs into publicly available desktops for citizens and reporters to access.

To generate reports for the crime map, employees assess what needs redaction on each document, then program those redactions into software called Adobe Redact. After scanning the documents into Adobe Redact, the software routes them as PDF documents to a server, which makes them available on the Internet crime map. Schrier said that while he guaranteed the new process saved personnel hours, the SPD could not yet quantify those savings. Report postings typically take between eight hours and two days from the time an officer writes the report to the time it appears on the crime map. The more serious the crime, the quicker it ends up on the map, explained Schrier.

The project cost roughly $350,000 to implement, which involved 35 employees, some from the SPD and others from the Seattle Department of Information Technology (DoIT).

“Many were sworn police officers. We had attorneys involved to make sure they weren’t violating privacy laws. There were database management folks, Web folks, people who manage Microsoft Windows servers,” Schrier said, listing even more than that.

Schrier noted the $350,000 price tag included the ability to add other data sets to the map in the future. For example, he foresees posting 9-1-1 call data. At some point, he would like to post data relevant to city animal control officers. The SPD would need to adjust the crime map server in a way that allowed animal control staff to upload their data to it without seeing other types of information on the server. Part of what resides on that server can only be viewed by sworn police officers.

Schrier said projects like My Neighborhood Maps illustrated why mayors should consider IT departments to be areas for further investment, rather than cuts. He said city officials frequently cut IT resources, not understanding that IT investments could reduce the need for extra staff elsewhere. The simplified report loading process behind My Neighborhood Maps is a perfect example of that, in Schrier’s view.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has asked all city department heads to submit Excel spreadsheets ranking their current projects. In August, the mayor will use these to determine what to cut. Time will show what ripple effects, if any, result through the rest of Seattle government, due to any IT cuts.

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