Everyblock and the Chicago Police Department

I’ve been a long time fan of EveryBlock, from its earlier incarnation called Chicago Crime.org, through its purchase by MSNBC. I had noticed this police report information shortfall as well.

Sunday Morning Parking Lot

In Chicago, the police department declines to make any details available online to us or to EveryBlock, a five-member operation based here. EveryBlock was bought last year by MSNBC.com and cranks out daily updates for neighborhoods in 15 other cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Dallas.

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.

EveryBlock is the brainchild of soft-spoken, angular Adrian Holovaty, 29, well-known in the online world for innovations in computer code. He retains oversight and, with two colleagues, operates out of an airy but bare Ravenswood loft about a mile north of Wrigley Field.

Mr. Holovaty is asking his audience here to sign a petition, to prod the Chicago Police Department to change its ways. He links to the petition from each crime. ‘Would you like to see more information about this crime? So would we!’ he asks.”

(click to continue reading Chicago News Cooperative – In the Age of Information, the Police Department Lags Behind – NYTimes.com.)

What is strange is that the local paper The Chicago Journal has a page of police reports written in English. I guess these are hand-crafted by Chicago Journal reporters? They are not as extensive, of course.

If you have a second, take the time to sign the EveryBlock petition.

Chicago Police Bomb Squad

Chicago Police Bomb Squad

As I hinted, I love Everyblock – I receive a daily email about my 8 block area, and another email1 that contains all news in a hand-crafted area of my own choosing, plus I subscribe to an RSS feed that covers similar ground, and have the EveryBlock iPhone app installed.

Neighborhood demarcations are like country borders, they are useful sometimes, but in real life, are less meaningful. When I walk around taking photos, there is an area that I usually stick to – about a mile in some directions, but it is not a geometrically perfect circle. I walk west to Ashland, but usually not beyond, walk south to maybe Jackson, or occasionally Van Buren, but not beyond, walk north to Chicago Avenue, along the Chicago River, but not west of Halsted, walk into the Loop proper, but not too far. In other words2 my personal stomping ground includes portions of 4 or 5 different neighborhoods, but to me, it feels like one. EveryBlock allows me to mark a map and then pulls information from this marked “personal” neighborhood3.

Anyway, I strongly agree with Mr. Holovaty that the Chicago Police should open up their data for EveryBlock, I don’t see the downside for CPD.

It’s one thing to know there was a $300 theft down the street; it’s another to read the police officer’s description. “Clearly, there’s a huge difference between a random break-in and, say, an ex-boyfriend breaking into an apartment to get his stuff,” Mr. Holovaty says.

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.

Chicago is not alone in arguing that there are privacy concerns, notably names of victims, and what can be raw descriptions replete with misspellings. But Mr. Holovaty underscores that EveryBlock, as a matter of policy, does not run people’s names on any of its listings, be they crimes, real estate transactions or granting of business licenses.

Further, he says he could devise algorithmic solutions to dealing with privacy issues like bad spelling and raw language. But he meets resistance.

“The trend in the law is fairly robust when it comes to access for the public,” said Eve Burton, vice president and general counsel for the Hearst Corporation. “But the practice among those implementing the laws is less good, and media companies are no longer putting the time, energy and resources into being the watchdog of government.”

If government wanted to live up to its obligations, technology could make everything from crime reports to restaurant inspections available. But instead, the cat-and-mouse game will continue, with government preferring secrecy and the likes of Mr. Holovaty banging on doors, or at least their data servers.

  1. overkill I know, but what can I say, I adore collecting information []
  2. for non-Chicagoans []
  3. news, photos, real estate transactions, city permits, whatever []

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