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Transparency in Numbers

CHICAGO HAS long been regarded as one of the leading surveillance cities in the United States due to its prominent video cameras, but it has not always been forthcoming with crime data. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is implementing steps to change that. His administration has announced that Chicago will release 10 years’ worth of crime information into a publicly accessible database.

Wesley Skogan, professor at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, calls the decision “amazing.” He says, “It’s part of a more general effort by city government to become more transparent.”

The data can be used by businesses to see what crimes occur in their environs. They can then craft security measures to address those risks, says Don Zoufal, safety and security industry executive with the firm of System Development and Integration LLC in Chicago. For example, he notes, if a business sees that certain crimes occur during the nighttime, it can consider whether to invest in a camera with greater night vision. Zoufal says that understanding these environmental issues helps people to address crime and plan countermeasures.

Zoufal points out that technology isn’t the lone solution to security problems, but it can be made more efficient with good crime data. He adds that the data can also help strengthen public-private partnerships. When the data become more transparent, that fosters cooperation within the community and with businesses, says Zoufal. “This just strengthens those key partnerships that I think law enforcement agencies are looking to strengthen.”

Skogan says that Houston is the only other city doing something similar to Chicago’s major data release, but Houston’s data is not as comprehensive. The Chicago database includes details on the crime and location, as well as arrest information.

There is also an effort underway by applications developers to create tools to facilitate use of the statistics. Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC) is helping to lead the effort. One approach is to work with the Metro Chicago Illinois Competition, which awards prize money and support to promising applications, says Kathryn Auerbach, director of development and external communication for MCIC.

The group is also working directly with the city. Auerbach says part of what her group tries to do is to make sure people use the database correctly. “It has lots of possibilities. But…you can’t just label an area safe or not safe. You have to think about all the different elements of what the data reflect and really dig down into it as opposed to just accepting it as ‘oh, clearly there’s more white heroin in this neighborhood,’” she says.

Some of the more interesting applications being discussed are ones that provide comparisons of crime rates with police deployment, as well as ones that use crowd sourcing to drill down into crime stats, says Auerbach.

There is still some more data that groups would like to see added. For example, Skogan says he was hoping there would be information about weapon type in the database. He would also like the city to reach out to other agencies in the future, including the fire department.