July 2, 2010 By Andy Opsahl
Several cities offer online maps showing where various types of crimes have been committed. However, the map recently deployed by Seattle is one of the few to offer links to redacted police reports.
The city's My Neighborhood Map eliminated a laborious manual process that will free up employees to do other work, according to Seattle CIO Bill Schrier. Before deployment of the online map, citizens had to visit police stations to request police reports and typically waited an average of 12 days to receive them. Now, a few simple clicks on the online map can instantly get citizens any police report they need.
"It helps citizens know what's going on in their neighborhood," Schrier said. "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 his or her mouse over an icon, the user sees a few details about the crime and a link to the redacted police report. Later this month, Schrier plans to release the data on data.seattle.gov, a site that aggregates city data for citizens to program into their own applications. Schrier hopes a Seattle resident will create an application that uses analytics for predicting what crimes are likelier to happen in various sections of the city.
Schrier said generating the reports for citizens was work-intensive in the past. When police reports arrived at the Seattle Police Department, an employee redacted any sensitive data with a felt-tip pen, scanned the report and then sent it to a server. After that, five CD sets were made of the reports, which employees distributed manually to precincts. Employees then loaded the discs into publicly available desktops for citizens and reporters to access.
Now, to generate reports for the crime map, employees assess what needs redaction on each document, then program those redactions into Adobe redaction software. After scanning the documents into the software, they are routed as PDFs to a server, which makes them available on the Internet crime map.
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 goes live on the map, explained Schrier.
The project cost approximately $350,000 to implement, which involved 35 employees, some from the police department and others from Seattle's IT department.
"Many were sworn police officers," Schrier said. "We had attorneys involved to make sure they weren't violating privacy laws. There were people from database management, Web and managers of Microsoft Windows servers," Schrier said, listing even more than that.
Schrier noted the price tag included the ability to add other data sets to the map in the future. For example, he foresees posting 911 call data. At some point, he would also like to post data that's relevant to city animal control officers. (The police department 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 Map illustrate why mayors should consider IT departments to be areas for further investment, rather than targets for cuts. He said city officials frequently cut IT resources, not understanding that those investments could reduce the need for extra staff elsewhere. The simplified process for loading police reports that's resulted from My Neighborhood Map is a perfect example of that, he said.