Collaboration in Civic Spheres

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Seattle City Council Member Tim Burgess: Police Need To Implement Real-Time Crime Reporting, Online

by Matt Rosenberg June 14th, 2010

Other Improvements Urged By Former Cop

Seattle City Council Member Tim Burgess is a former radio reporter and former Seattle policeman who started an international communications and marketing firm he sold several years ago. He almost ran for Mayor in 2009 against incumbent Greg Nickels, but having just been elected to Council a year prior, declined. However he is seen as a rival of new Mayor Mike McGinn and Seattle political junkies expect Burgess is very likely planning a run against McGinn in 2013. So if you like, take a grain of salt along with what Burgess says about the city’s needs for improved policing at a crucial point just before the Mayor decides whom to hire as the city’s new police chief. And please know that we take no sides here politically, choosing not to endorse any candidate or any side in any election. All that said, in an opinion article published in the online news journal Crosscut, Burgess makes important points about the need for Seattle Police to develop better online crime reporting capabilities.

The department’s persistent failure to keep pace with technology is a good example of a lost opportunity. Hardly any other city in the country surpasses Seattle’s software engineering capabilities and yet our police department doesn’t use real-time crime reporting, can’t quickly provide crime trend or hotspot analysis, doesn’t enable crime victims to report online, and doesn’t share detailed crime statistics with the public by precinct, zip code or census track. This is an internal management problem for the department in terms of strategies and officer deployment. In addition, the lack of full disclosure of crime stats breeds suspicion and mistrust in the community. Community leaders often complain to me about their inability to get solid information on what’s happening in their neighborhood.

Seattle has a new public data hub, which is in the early stages, but holds promise. The idea, as in other cities and counties around the nation, is that software developers can build on rich government data sets to create handy applications for the public. The city is also planning to unveil new tools this summer for its public Web sites, allowing creation of customizable “dashboards” to create a more user-friendly and efficient experience. The city also provides a variety of online services for constituents and businesses, and supports several very useful online databases which we’ve written about and discussed on the radio for our Public Data Ferret project, such as the Department of Planning and Development’s Permit Activity Locator, and the health department’s Restaurant Inspections Online. So it’s not as though the city government is clueless about the potential of interactive and timely online tools for constituents.

Nonetheless, Burgess is spot on about the need for real-time and highly localized crime reporting online by Seattle Police; for systematic and very public trend and hotspot analysis online by police; and online crime reporting tools for citizens. It’s 2010, already. Violent assaults on the city’s streets, and residential burglaries and attempted burglaries continue at a pace that causes concern. Safety and security of residents, employees and visitors is a thick thread in the social fabric of any city Seattle’s size, or larger. The need for better and more timely information on crime in the city and more collaboration between communities and the police to deter crime, is pressing. It will be worth watching to see if the city council and mayor can summon the leadership and resources to bring the Seattle Police Department more fully into the Information Age.

UPDATE: This Seattle P-I blog post links to some neat visualizations done by a talented software developer working with City of San Francisco crime data. You see a lot of “hey, look what some guy did” articles like this on “civic apps,” but despite the valuable modeling, it’s not necessarily a sustainable approach. Hire the guy maybe, but you have to budget for it, and keep the effort going, ad infinitum. The building and maintenance of online communications infrastructure for better city crime reporting has to be owned by city government.