Crime Mapping in the News

Today, I ran into an article in the Wall Street Journal that discusses several new websites that promote information sharing between the police and the public. These websites focus on providing up to date information about crime incidents within cities by allowing the public to view various aspects related to the occurrence of a crime. The public is able to search for crimes at specific addresses and times, and they are able to focus on certain types of crime. Personally, this article is very exciting for a number of reasons...

First, any time crime mapping makes it into a national newspaper like the Wall Street Journal it is both a joy to read and to see that our science is being exposed to a very large audience. So often niches in research, like crime mapping, are kept behind closed doors in the form of government reports or highly technical journal articles that even trained professionals have trouble understanding. Forums like CrimeMapping.Com and CrimeReports.Com provide the public with an easy to use format for viewing crime data. For researchers like myself, this should be viewed as an excellent tool for future research. One can only imagine the number of opportunities that up to date crime information can provide. However, at this point these website are fairly new. The Wall Street Journal article reports that these websites started just after the first production of Google Maps in 2007. The second aspect of this article that I find very exciting is that many local police departments are willing to share this information by making connections with private companies like the ones mentioned above. These websites work by local police agencies purchasing a membership (WSJ reports for around $200), which allows the crime mapping company to then set up an interface where the public can view crime data. At this point there are about 800 agencies, which appear to be in a number of metro areas, but also include several smaller communities. What is not clear from the article is how the mapping companies are able to keep constantly updated crime data available for the public to view. However, researchers and the public should be excited about the possibility of crime information being placed on an integrated and publicly available system.

One point that the article made that I found to be interesting is that these companies are up and coming, and have not yet perfected the art/science of producing completely accurate maps. Its interesting to me because the public has been provided some inside information (tongue in cheek) about problems that mappers of any ilk face, and that is the problem with correctly geocoding address based information to a map. Its almost humorous to know that one of our disciplines most closely held secrets is now exposed :). Obviously, within the field it is widely known that the accuracy of geocoding is susceptible to numerous types of errors (anyone interested should take a look at written articles by Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe at Temple University for a more advanced and articulate discussion of these problems). I think that in the future as the companies become more stable that these types of problems should be reported. It seems that companies that produce information that, as the WSJ article points out, have very real impacts of people's perception of crime, should also provide information about dynamics of crime mapping. Criminologists should be sure that those viewing maps understand exactly what they are viewing. One very practical example (and a bit more advanced in terms of what is viewable on the websites) would be a person who has little knowledge about crime viewing a Calls for Service map. One could observe a Calls for Service map in one of the lowest crime cities in America and still get the feeling that the city is overwhelmed with crime. The point here is that the mapping of crime incidents is much more than simply placing points on a map, and then proclaiming that "crime exists here". There are numerous factors that go into where crime occurs and why, and I think it is important to be sure that the public is at least somewhat educated about the dynamics of what they are viewing. We have to be sure that crime data is not sensationalized to the point that fear is raised, and people begin to unnecessarily change their behavior. After all, statistically, we have never been safer.