Seattle Police have been posting crime data online for years, but now they’re working to help citizens better understand and engage with that information.
Last week, the department held a community meeting to educate the public about its open data offerings, with a focus on explaining the nuances behind the information that police post so that users can make more informed decisions about how to use the data.
In a webinar Tuesday — which was hosted by Socrata, the company that helped the department build some of its open data tools — Chief Information Officer Bill Schrier noted that this meeting was just one part of the department’s broader efforts to engage the city about how to use police data.
“Giving people data about what’s happening in their neighborhood or about what their police department is doing doesn’t necessarily build trust immediately because people need to understand that data,” Schrier said. “Oftentimes the way we publish it can be kind of cryptic, so that’s the reason for engagement.”
Schrier helped to set up some of the city’s first efforts at posting data online when he served as Seattle’s chief technology officer several years ago, and he said he’s put a special focus on making the department’s data more accessible and understandable since taking over as CIO in September.
“A mantra of mine, and the Seattle police department’s, is how do we best help citizens engage in their own public safety?” Schrier said. “A significant way to do that, of course, is give them data.”
Community meetings will be a key facet of Schrier’s efforts to build that engagement, as he seeks to explain more about the crime data the department posts. One area his staff was focused on clarifying at the most recent meeting they held was the distinction between data on crime reports and information about 911 calls, Schrier said.
“You need to talk to engaged citizens about the data so they understand how police departments work, like how a 911 call doesn’t necessarily translate into a crime report for example,” Schrier said. “But 911 calls do provide a much more extensive record of demand for service in communities.”
He also hopes to remove some of the mystery behind the more “cryptic” aspects of the data. Schrier pointed to three digit codes assigned to each record of a 911 call as something that might seem especially confounding to the public without the necessary background information.
“Each one means something different, like a car problem or a barking dog, and you wouldn’t know that unless you went to one of these meetings or had it explained to you,” Schrier said.
Schrier believes that when the public can use data in a sophisticated fashion, it can create a sort of feedback loop that helps make communities safer and improves police accountability.
As an example, he demonstrated how the department tried to tackle the issue of thefts of items from vehicles, also known as “car prowls.” Once the department noticed a spike in the number of reports of the thefts in mid-2015, they posted on their website about the trend to alert people living in the areas most affected — and encourage them to report any thefts immediately. The department also set a clear goal of trying to reduce the number of car prowls to a set number by the end of the year and posted that goal alongside the crime data showing where the thefts occurred.
Schrier believes the process helped engage the community by raising awareness about the problem, and as the reports flowed in, investigators could narrow their focus and find the culprits.
“We determined that many of them were the results of organized gangs, and the gang unit was able to target and arrest a couple of the leaders of the gangs who were leading the rings, and that was able to reduce the car prowls,” Schrier said. “It was because we had the statistics and the maps that we were able to do that targeting.”
Now, the department’s data portal also clearly shows how police were able to make that drop in crime happen, and Schrier hopes to repeat the process the next time a similar spike in crime occurs.
“This sort of thing really helps citizens understand what’s going on in their neighborhoods, but it also helps the police department decide how to deploy resources,” Schrier said.
The more the department can get out in the community and engage Seattle citizens, the more Schrier thinks police can expect the same positive outcome.
“We need to go out and explain to people who are interested, like journalists and developers, what the data means, what is in the data and what isn’t,” Schrier said.
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