SpotCrime.com: former Philadelphia resident turns tragedy into data - Technical.ly Philly

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Sep. 23, 2011 11:00 am

SpotCrime.com: former Philadelphia resident turns tragedy into data

In 2007, Drane launched SpotCrime.com, one of a handful of national city crime data aggregation tools.
SpotCrime.com screenshot showing its database goes back several years, older than many other services online.

SpotCrime.com screenshot showing its database goes back several years, older than many other services online.

On May 7, 1998, 23-year-old Wharton Ph.D. student Shannon Schieber was strangled to death on her second-floor apartment by Troy Graves, who would later be characterized as a serial Center City rapist.

That’s about the time when Colin Drane first moved near 22nd and Chestnut streets in Center City.

“I believe this was part of my inspiration to inform the public and help catch bad guys,” Drane, 41, said. It felt like a Penn student was assaulted every day that September, he added.

His form of detective work? Data. In 2007, Drane launched SpotCrime.com, one of a handful of national city crime data aggregation tools. Drane has been collecting crime reports in Philadelphia for more than four years, first by scraping news reports, then through a daily data dump from the police department.

Colin Drane.

Last year, SpotCrime.com, published by Drane’s parent company ReportSee, was sued, in a landmark case, by PublicEngines, the company behind SpotCrime.com and last month’s partnership announcement with the Philadelphia Police. The case, settled out of court, was watched closely and, in the end, resulted in a decision that SpotCrime, which scrapes free resources, couldn’t use information from CrimeReports, which partners, like it did here in Philadelphia, with crime safety organizations.

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SpotCrime was using a public feed from Irving, Texas “for free for three years,” when it was recently turned off by the police department in exchange for the CrimeReports proprietary system, Drane said.

“That’s an important story,” Drane said, but he can’t legally talk about it, as part of the settlement.

Currently, SpotCrime tracks some 500 feeds, but, as Drane says, “it fluctuates because [while] many cities are becoming open with their data … some are moving their data behind [other] proprietary systems.”

Drane pointed to Omega, one of the industry’s big players, which just added terms of use that cut off SpotCrime from using data from Omega’s partners, which number in the hundreds of U.S. cities, Drane said, and restrict even manually recording and distributing the information.

“The data is much more valuable if you have monopoly control. It is bad for the public because access is limited,” Drane said. “The optimal value to the public is to make it free to everyone and increase the probability that the public is going to be more informed and ultimately safer. But, if you are going to allow a monopoly of the data, then the entity receiving the monopoly control should probably pay for that control.”

SpotCrime was launched to remain open, he said.

The site launched in 2007 in Baltimore, where Drane moved around 2000 to open up an office for a shipping company he was launching. After selling it and launching SpotCrime in Baltimore, he then followed up with Dallas and Washington D.C., where there were existing open police data feeds — and then launched in his old home, Philadelphia that year.

Now still living in Baltimore, Drane says Philadelphia remains one of his bigger markets, sending out 30,000 daily emails here out of 3.5 million sent every month nationally.

ReportSee has two employees and, though he’s involved in other projects (like recently publishing a true crime book), he spends “90 percent” of his time on SpotCrime and its related cirime data sites.

“We consider ourselves a news organization,” Drane said, “and so we take the sharing of information that important.”

Spotcrime.com, which is funded by advertising, “isn’t the prettiest site,” Drane said. “We’re like craligslist, no frills, just what you need. We’re more about the distribution because we just want the information available.”

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