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Sep. 18, 2012 10:30 am

SpotCrime.com founder Colin Drane says more transparency needed with police crime data

Crime mapping is something that consumes much of Colin Drane’s time. As the founder of SpotCrime, based in downtown Baltimore, he’s responsible for overseeing a website that sends out nearly 5 million e-mails a month to people in cities nationwide, informing them of the thefts and assaults happening in their neighborhoods. But his struggles over […]

Crime mapping is something that consumes much of Colin Drane’s time.

As the founder of SpotCrime, based in downtown Baltimore, he’s responsible for overseeing a website that sends out nearly 5 million e-mails a month to people in cities nationwide, informing them of the thefts and assaults happening in their neighborhoods.

But his struggles over five years with getting his hands on what is, generally, publicly accessible crime data, has taught him an important lesson: mapping crime is not the end of transparency regarding the data.

“Transparency is a table so all the media can consume [crime data] and map it,” says Drane, 42, who lives in Baltimore County. “Where’s the public value in restricting the public in how they can share, copy and tabulate public data?”

It’s an issue that became apparent for Drane in 2010 when ReportSee, the parent company owned by Drane that publishes SpotCrime, was sued by Public Engines, the company responsible for CrimeReports, a proprietary service that partners with cities’ police departments, which pay a fee to CrimeReports to have their crime data packaged and mapped.

Colin Drane

The case was settled out of court, but the result was that SpotCrime—which collects freely available public data—could no longer use information from CrimeReports. In turn, this meant that any city that had entered into a partnership with CrimeReports would no longer have data available for SpotCrime to map and distribute.

“The only impediment to our success is getting access to this data,” says Drane, who also operates three additional crime mapping sites: SpotCrime.info, a world crime reporting site, MyLocalCrime and UCrime, for universities.

Police departments mapping their crime data is nothing new, as Forbes.com reported in 2009. What has only happened in recent years is police departments releasing that information for free.

Since its founding in 2007, SpotCrime.com has worked by scraping crime data information from free resources. It’s not a partner with any city police department, nor does it charge for use or access of the data it collects. All of Drane’s sites are paid for through advertising he collects when people click on the SpotCrime widgets available for other websites to post.

Drane’s worry is that as police departments’ antiquated crime reporting systems are upgraded in partnership with third-party vendors, with more strident terms of use that prohibit distribution or reposting data, the crime data that has been freely available will “go dark.” One example, he says, is San Diego, Calif., a city SpotCrime is no longer able to pull data from. Another is Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, where an upgrade to the county’s reporting system has made it impossible for SpotCrime to pull crime data since fall 2011.

“Any time you add friction to access, you slow down the benefits of data,” he says. “Being able to look at data and not being able to write it down is not transparency.”

As to where Baltimore stands with their crime reporting? Drane says the city deserves “some points.”

“They’ve kept up their antiquated system,” he says. “From my perspective, they were on the forefront of bringing maps to the public.”

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Andrew Zaleski

Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and the former lead reporter for Technical.ly Baltimore. Before moving to Philadelphia in June 2014, he was a contributing writer to Baltimore City Paper and a Tech Check commentator for WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore city’s National Public Radio affiliate. He has written for The Atlantic, Outside, Richmond magazine, Washington City Paper, Baltimore magazine, Baltimore Style magazine, Next City, Grist.org, The Atlantic Cities, and elsewhere.

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