Crime / Data / Municipal government / OpenBaltimore / Startups

As SpotCrime grows, fight for police data transparency remains

The company recently passed 1 million subscribers, said founder Colin Drane.

Police tape in Baltimore. (Photo by Flickr user Something Ferdinand, used under a Creative Commons license)
As founder Colin Drane sees it, SpotCrime is working to destroy its own business model.

The Baltimore-based startup uses data released by police departments to provide crime alerts via email. In working to get access to that data, Drane is also working for increased openness.
“If we increase transparency and all these police departments make the data public, that lowers the value proposition of SpotCrime,” he said.
As it stands, however, the company hasn’t worked itself out of a job. Last month, Drane said the company crossed the million-subscriber mark for its crime alerts. ( Baltimore previously reported the company crossed 1 million unique users on its website, which is different.) The eight-year-old company is providing data in “almost every major city in the U.S.,” as well as in the U.K. and Australia. The company hasn’t taken outside funding, but   has deals to provide the crime data to media companies like Sinclair Broadcasting, Zillow, Gannett and DirecTV, which has a home security product, Drane said. They also make money via advertising.
While Drane said the company is the largest of its kind, it also leads to struggles in obtaining the data.
“SpotCrime is the one company going around saying, ‘Are you going to make this open?'” he said.
Even though the data is public, Drane estimates getting access takes up about 80 percent of the focus of the company’s efforts. Their efforts in Maryland provide a snapshot of how uneven it can be.

A SpotCrime screenshot from 2012.

A SpotCrime screenshot from 2012. (Screenshot)

While Baltimore’s police accountability is constantly called into question when it comes to brutality and the relationship with the community, he said the city has been one of the best in terms of providing rote crime data, even before the OpenBaltimore portal came online.
“Baltimore has been much more transparent historically with crime data than many other cities,” Drane said. he observed that Baltimore has had fewer interruptions in access than San Francisco and D.C.
Outside the state’s largest city, Anne Arundel County recently reopened its data after a two-year hiatus, and Howard County now has an open data portal. In counties like Frederick and Harford, however, Drane said he hasn’t been able to get access.
Like other types of public data, there are risks that what gets released is incomplete. With police departments specifically, data could be sanitized to reclassify violent crimes as lesser offenses to juke stats. Then there’s the widely-quoted statistic that 52 percent of violent crimes aren’t even reported to police in the first place. Drane argues that you still need access to the data to eventually learn what’s missing.
“Once it’s being released, you can also make some conclusions about the absence of data. But if you have a zero look into what’s going on, then you have zero footing,” he said.


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