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Philadelphia just built a crime mapping tool for the entire region

Instead of finding a software company to build the tool, project leads Mike Vidro and Grant Ervin hired some developers to help them build it in-house. The internal tool is set to launch in early November.

Changes are afoot at Dover Downs. (Photo by Flickr user Spam, under a Creative Commons license)

The latest crime mapping tool out of the City of Philadelphia ties together real-time crime data through 9-1-1 calls, loads of regional data and surveillance camera feeds.

The project, backed by an $800,000 Delaware River Port Authority grant and set to launch in early November, was an ambitious one.

For one, the internal tool was meant to serve a dozen regional partners in the city’s Delaware Valley Intelligence Center, including the Philadelphia Police Department, Amtrak, SEPTA, PennDOT, the Coast Guard and ideally, police departments in surrounding counties.

A system that integrates video feeds and geographical data.

Project leads Grant Ervin, a deputy geographic information officer for the city, and Mike Vidro, who runs the Police Department’s surveillance camera program, said they were hearing from these organizations that they wanted a system that integrated video feeds and geographical data. While the Police Department has its own crime mapping and analysis tool, many of those other organizations did not, Vidro said. They’d have to churn their data by hand using, say, Excel or Google Apps.

Since many organizations wanted a tool like this, it made sense to build one system and not multiple specific ones, but that raised a problem: how do you find a vendor that can build that within a reasonable budget? And what if more regional partners wanted in on the system? That would mean paying a software company every single time the city wanted to tweak the tool.

(Other public sector employees have talked about how government contracting is restrictive in this way, like former Obama staffer Dave Cole, who ran into problems when he had to redesign but found that the White House didn’t own the code to the website.)

So Ervin and Vidro decided to hire some developers and build the project in-house.

That way, the city would own the code that powered the tool and they’d be able to customize it as time went on. It also kept the project cost lower. When contracting with outside companies, there’s often an annual maintenance fee involved, as well as fees for custom features and licenses.

Ervin and Vidro hired Michael Baker International, a consulting firm with offices in Center City, and geographIT, a Lancaster-based GIS consulting firm, to help them build the tool.

The tool pulls data from numerous sources, including real-time SEPTA transit data, statewide crime data and 9-1-1 calls from several police agencies (Philly, SEPTA, etc.). It also plots video camera feeds on a map, so if a crime analyst is fielding a call about a crime in a certain place, she can click on the nearby cameras and pull up their feeds.

It’s also a way to push the regional partnership of the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center forward, Vidro said. The $20 million public safety hub in South Philadelphia, backed in large part by the federal government, is meant to centralize crime-fighting operations. The launch of a tool that all of its partners can use will hopefully help accomplish that goal, Vidro said.

“It’s kind of like: if you build it, they will come,” he said.

Companies: City of Philadelphia / Philadelphia Police Department

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