Smart Takes

EveryBlock: A smarter, perhaps too smart, way to track crime

Posting in Cities

EveryBlock automatically aggregates a city's public crime and health statistics by zip code. But what if local officials don't comply with the spirit of "public" records?

If you've ever visited EveryBlock.com, you're almost sure to have been delighted by its hyperlocal aggregation of news, reviews, photos, inspection records and crime statistics of a particular zip code or city.

The brainchild of innovative programmer Adrian Holovaty (and the property of MSNBC.com), the site aggregates local news for 15 cities in the United States.

But perhaps most interesting is the crime statistics, which many people aren't used to reading.

Here's one from the zip code of SmartPlanet's HQ in New York City:

17 crimes reported in Precinct 17
Week of April 12, 2010: 1 felony assault, 1 burglary, 14 grand larcenies, 1 grand larceny (auto).

Here's another from the Bella Vista neighborhood of Philadelphia:

Theft: Over $200: Bicycle

Dispatched at 11:38 a.m. on April 23, 2010.

And another, from Los Angeles:

#100808936: Burglary (property)  Reported in West Los Angeles Division at 8 p.m. on April 28, 2010.

And another, from Charlotte, N.C.:

Location: 100 Block of E. Trade St. Incident date: Feb. 28, 2010. Incident type: Assault with a deadly weapon — with injury. Complaint number: 20100228030301. Description: The victims were stabbed during a fight in the street at the above address. The victims were treated on the scene by medic and transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. The two male victims described a short black male suspect to officers. Incident time: 3:03 a.m.

As you can see, a big difference.

An article in the New York Times details the site's problems with major cities such as Chicago, whose inability (or refusal) to keep digital public records up-to-date and accessible has left a forward-thinking site like EveryBlock, well, blocked.

James Warren writes:

The site's frustration with Chicago underscores how scant our access is to public records at most levels of government.

Take the city's Department of Public Health. It stopped updating its Web site last year. That means that for months, citizens haven’t been able to find out about, say, what restaurants have been hit with violations. In part, the department blames technological problems.

The problem is a question of what exactly "open" and "public" means. Technically, a citizen can get the specific details of a crime by visiting the local police precinct in person -- but the question is whether the police department and other agencies should be held to higher (that is, equal) standards online.

Warren, again:

We can get those details if we go to the police station. But the department won't make descriptions available online. The end result is ignorance, possibly about the real dangers in a neighborhood. Lack of context can breed fear and needless anxiety.

For police, it's partially a matter of budget, and partially a matter of privacy.

But is it really smart to keep such information from being easily accessible by homeowners, retailers and others?

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure