Back in June we learned that the Edmonton Police Service was planning to launch a new website that would enable citizens to find crime statistics for their neighbourhoods. This afternoon, the EPS Crime Mapping tool went online, and it does just that. You can search for stats on eight types of crimes in any neighbourhood across any time period since 2007. From the press release:
The new crime mapping tool will provide members and citizens with a better understanding of what is going on the neighbourhoods they work and live in.
I’ve been playing with the site today, and I like it. There are pros and cons, however.
How It Works
The first step is to agree to the disclaimer – more on that in a minute. Next, you pick the crimes you want statistics for. The eight types include assault, break and enter, homicide, robbery, sexual assaults, theft from vehicle, theft of vehicle, and theft over $5000. Third, you pick the neighbourhood – there are 357 listed in the system. Finally, you select the time period. There are some quick selections such as yesterday or the last 30 days, or you can enter any two dates. Click “Show Crimes” and your neighbourhood appears on the map, covered in colored dots to represent the reported crimes. Here’s what Oliver looks like for the last 30 days with all crime types selected:
There’s also a “View Statistics” tab above the map that will show you a table for the last three years broken down by month, with a graph below that.
There are some really good things about this site. First and foremost, the data is excellent. I’m glad that they included everything up-front, instead of doing a test release or something to start. Second, it’s built using Google Maps. This is a big win for EPS – it’s a stable technology that Google is continually making better, and I would guess that most Edmontonians are familiar with it. Third, it’s fast. Almost as soon as you click the button, your stats appear.
There are two things about the site that I don’t like. First is the disclaimer – it’s too restrictive. These two points in particular are problematic:
While it is acceptable to pass the website link on to others in your community, you will not share the information found on the website with others other than with members of the Edmonton Police Service or other law enforcement agencies; and
You will only use this website and the information in it so you can inform yourself of, and participate in, this community policing initiative;
That effectively means you can’t do anything with the data. This is in direct contrast with what the press release would lead you to believe:
Providing our citizens with the real picture of neighbourhood crime is the first step in engaging them to do something about it. Members of the public will be better equipped with knowledge to work collaboratively with the EPS to reduce and prevent crime.
What’s the point of making the data available if you can’t do anything with it? Why can’t I blog about the crime stats in a particular neighbourhood? Or mash the crime stats up with some other data? I challenge the notion that simply being able to see the dots on a map equips me to do something about crime in my neighbourhood.
I’ve emailed the feedback address listed on the site asking about this, but I haven’t yet received a response.
The second bad thing about the site is that while it does make data available, it does so in an opaque and closed way. If Edmonton is going to become an open city (with respect to data), sites like the crime mapping tool need to provide information for multiple audiences. One is the average citizen who is happy to click around on the map. Another increasingly important audience is the creative professional who wants to do something with the data, and needs it in a machine-readable format such as a CSV or XML file.
The Undocumented API
The first thing I did after testing the site with my neighbourhood was poke around for clues about where the data comes from. It didn’t take long to realize that there’s a JSON web service behind the application. You can access it here. It’s probably not meant for public consumption, but it’s there and it works. I was able to throw some code together in about 30 minutes to get data out of the service. While it would still be good to have static data files available, the API largely negates the con I mentioned above. As it is unofficial however, who knows if it will remain active and working, so enjoy it while you can.
Overall I think the Crime Mapping tool is excellent. We need more applications and services like this, though with less restrictive terms/licensing and easier-to-access data. Kudos to EPS for building this, and let’s hope they improve it.
UPDATE: There are more details in this article. For instance, the tool apparently cost $20,000 to build, and is automatically updated each morning.