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Tuesday, 02 August 2016 07:20

Interactive Crime Maps: A Critical Perspective

Written by Teresa Scassa

Municipal police services in North America now commonly make digital crime maps available to the public online. These interactive maps allow individuals to choose a particular part of their city, as well as a window of time (crimes in the last 7, 14 or 21 days, for example). They can search for all mapped crimes in this time frame or can limit their search to particular types of crime. The results are returned in the form of icons on a map of the selected area. The icons represent different categories of criminal activity, and clicking on each icon will reveal basic information about the incident. The maps can be used for many purposes. For example, someone who is thinking of parking their vehicle overnight in a particular part of the city might search to see if there are many thefts of vehicles or thefts from vehicles in that area. Prospective home buyers or renters might also use the maps to assess the incidence of crime in neighborhoods they are considering. Most crime maps of this kind allow users to sign up for email alerts about crime in their neighborhood, and the maps also provide a means for individuals to send in tips about mapped crimes.

A police service that decides to offer an interactive crime map to the public can choose to create their own crime map (usually by hiring a tech services company to build one) (for examples of this option see the maps from Winnipeg or Halifax) or they can contract with one of a number of leading crime mapping companies in North America. These companies typically offer a range of data analytics services to police. Often the crime maps are offered for free, with the hope that the police service will purchase other analytics services. The 3 leading companies are all based in the United States, but they offer hosting on their platform to police services across North America.

In a new paper that has just been published in the International Journal of e-Planning Research, I look at the practice of crime-mapping in 3 Canadian municipalities – Ottawa, London and Saint John. The police services in each of these cities have contracted with a different one of the 3 leading U.S.-based crime mapping companies. In my paper I consider how these crime maps present particular narratives of crime in the city. These narratives may be influenced in subtle or not so subtle ways by the fact that the mapping platform is U.S.-based. These influences may show up in the rhetoric around the crime maps used by the host company, the crimes or other types of data chosen (or not chosen) for mapping, and the descriptions on the host platforms of the type of data featured on the maps. I also evaluate the quality of the mapped data, and explore how laws shape and constrain the use and reuse of crime data.

While the crime maps are superficially attractive and easy to use, there is reason to be concerned about their use. In my research for this paper, I learned that it is possible to access the maps either through the host company’s site or through the police service’s website. Depending on the route chosen, the messaging (including a description of the mapped data, the purpose of the map, and its limitations) is different. While disclaimers on the police services’ sites may warn of the limitations of the data provided, those who access through the host platform are unware of these deficiencies. The mapped data provide a very partial account of crime in the city, and critics of this type of crime mapping have raised concern both about the potentially misleading nature of the maps, and the particular narrative of urban crime they convey.

My paper also explores issues of control and ownership of the mapped data and the impact that this has on the ability of civil society groups either to critically assess the data or to create other tools and analytics that might combine crime data with other urban data. While the crime mapping platforms do not claim ownership of the data that they map (according to the sites, ownership rests with the police services), they do prohibit the scraping of data from their sites – and there is evidence of legal action taken to pursue data scrapers. In most cases, police services do not make the same data provided to the crime mapping companies available as open data. This allows the police service (in conjunction with the limitations built into the crime mapping platforms) to largely control how the data is presented to the public. At the same time, the presence of a publicly accessible crime map might itself be used by a police service as a justification for not making the same crime data available as open data. (I note that Vancouver, which hired a company to create its own crime map, also makes the mapped data available as open data (although it updates it with less frequency than the mapped data).

Ultimately, the paper asks whether this model of crime mapping advances or limits goals of transparency and accountability, and what lessons it offers about the use of private sector civic technologies to serve public sector purposes.

Note: The research behind this paper was recently featured by H.G. Watson in her article in J-Source titled “Reporters need to dig deeper into crime maps to tell the whole story”. The article also discusses April Lindgren’s interesting article on the relationship between police information and journalism titled “Covering Canadian Crime: What Journalists Should Know and the Public Should Question”.

 


The federal government has just released for public comment its open government plan for 2016-2018. This is the third such plan since Canada joined the Open Government Partnership in 2012. The two previous plans were released by the Conservative government, and were called Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2012-2014 and Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2014-2016. This most recent plan is titled Canada’s New Plan on Open Government (“New Plan”). The change in title signals a change in approach.

The previous government structured its commitments around three broad themes: Open Data, Open Information and Open Dialogue. It is fair to say that it was the first of these themes that received the greatest attention. Under the Conservatives there were a number of important open data initiatives: the government developed an open data portal, an open government licence (modeled on the UK Open Government Licence), and a Directive on Open Government. It also committed to funding the Open Data Exchange (ODX) (a kind of incubator hub for open data businesses in Canada), and supported a couple of national open data hackathons. Commitments under Open Information were considerably less ambitious. While important improvements were made to online interfaces for making access to information requests, and while more information was provided about already filled ATIP requests, it is fair to say that improving substantive access to government information was not a priority. Open dialogue commitments were also relatively modest.

Canada’s “New Plan” is considerably different in style and substance from its predecessors. This plan is structured around 4 broad themes: open by default; fiscal transparency; innovation, prosperity and sustainable development; and engaging Canadians and the world. Each theme comes with a number of commitments and milestones, and each speaks to an aspirational goal for open government, better articulating why this is an initiative worth an investment of time and resources.

Perhaps because there was so great a backlash against the previous government’s perceived lack of openness, the Liberals ran on an election platform that stressed openness and transparency. The New Plan reflects many of these election commitments. As such, it is notably more ambitious than the previous two action plans. The commitments are both deeper (for example, the 2014-2016 action plan committed to a public database disclosing details of all government contracts over $10,000; the New Plan commits to revealing details of all contracts over $1), and more expansive (with the government committing to new openness initiatives not found in earlier plans).

One area where the previous government faced considerable criticism (see, for example Mary Francoli’s second review of Canada’s open government commitments) was in respect of the access to information regime. That government’s commitments under “open information” aimed to improve access to information processes without addressing substantive flaws in the outdated Access to Information Act. The new government’s promise to improve the legislation is up front in the New Plan. Its first commitment is to enhance access to information through reforms to the legislation. According to the New Plan, these include order-making powers for the Commissioner, extending the application of the Access to Information Act to the Prime Minister and his Ministers’ Offices, and mandatory 5-year reviews of the legislation. Although these amendments would be a positive step, they fall short of those recommended by the Commissioner. It will also be interesting to see whether everything on this short list comes to pass. (Order-making powers in particular are something to watch here.) The House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics has recently completed hearings on this legislation. It will be very interesting to see what actually comes of this process. As many cynics (realists?) have observed, it is much easier for opposition parties to be in favour of open and transparent government than it is for parties in power. Whether the Act gets the makeover it requires remains to be seen.

One of the interesting features of this New Plan is that many of the commitments are ones that go to supporting the enormous cultural shift that is required for a government to operate in a more open fashion. Bureaucracies develop strong cultures, often influenced by long-cherished policies and practices. Significant change often requires more than just a new policy or directive; the New Plan contains commitments for the development of clear guidelines and standards for making data and information open by default, as well as commitments to training and education within the civil service, performance metrics, and new management frameworks. While not particularly ‘exciting’, these commitments are important and they signal a desire to take the steps needed to effect a genuine cultural shift within government.

The New Plan identifies fiscal transparency as an overarching theme. It contains several commitments to improve fiscal transparency, including more extensive and granular reporting of information on departmental spending, greater transparency of budget data and of fiscal analysis, and improved openness of information around government grants and other contributions. The government also commits to creating a single portal for Canadians who wish to search for information on Canadian businesses, whether they are incorporated federally or in one of the provinces or territories.

On the theme of Innovation, Prosperity and Sustainable Development, the New Plan also reflects commitments to greater openness in relation to federal science activities (a sore point with the previous government). It also builds upon a range of commitments that were present in previous action plans, including the use of the ODX to stimulate innovation, the development of open geospatial data, the alignment of open data at all levels of government in Canada, and the implementation of the Extractive Sector Transparency Measures Act. The New Plan also makes commitments to show leadership in supporting openness and transparency around the world.

The government’s final theme is “Engaging Canadians and the World”. This is the part where the government addresses how it plans to engage civil society. It plans to disband the Advisory Panel established by the previous government (of which I was a member). While the panel constituted a broad pool of expertise on which the government could draw, it was significantly under-utilized, and clearly this government plans to try something new. They state that they will “develop and maintain a renewed mechanism for ongoing, meaningful dialogue” between the government and civil society organizations – whatever that means. Clearly, the government is still trying to come up with a format or framework that will be most effective.

The government also commits in rather vague terms to fostering citizen participation and engagement with government on open government initiatives. It would seem that the government will attempt to “enable the use of new methods for consulting and engaging Canadians”, and will provide support and resources to government departments and agencies that require assistance in doing so. The commitments in this area are inward-looking – the government seems to acknowledge that it needs to figure out how to encourage and enhance citizen engagement, but at the same time is not sure how to do so effectively.

In this respect, the New Plan offers perhaps a case in point. This is a detailed and interesting plan that covers a great deal of territory and that addresses many issues that should be of significant concern to Canadians. It was released on June 16, with a call for comments by June 30. Such a narrow window of time in which to comment on such a lengthy document does not encourage engagement or dialogue. While the time constraints may be externally driven (by virtue of OGP targets and deadlines), and while there has been consultation in the lead up to the drafting of this document, it is disappointing that the public is not given more time to engage and respond.

For those who are interested in commenting, it should be noted that the government is open to comments/feedback in different forms. Comments may be made by email, or they can be entered into a comment box at the bottom of the page where the report is found. These latter comments tend to be fairly short and, once they pass through moderation, are visible to the public.


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