Missing: A promised street-level view of city crime

What if New Yorkers could go online and access an interactive map showing all crimes reported on every street in New York City in the last month or the last year?

In April, the New York City Council unanimously passed legislation tasking the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) with creating just such a crime-mapping tool. The law mandated the creation and maintenance of an interactive website — available to the public at no cost — mapping crime, parking regulations, and scheduled street closures across New York. On May 15, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the bill into law, with the expectation that the map would be available to the public 180 days after it was enacted.

Six months later, the crime-mapping site is not online.

Denver is among the cities that already makes crime data available publicly, both in a map and in the data that underlies it.

Denver is among the cities that already makes crime data available publicly, both in a map and in the data that underlies it.

“It is my understanding that the crime map is almost ready for launch, and that DoITT is simply working out a few final updates,” said a staffer in Councilmember Gale Brewer’s office who asked not to be named because the staffer was not authorized to comment on DoITT projects.

DoITT did not comment on the map’s status or when it might be publicly available.

When the City Council was considering the bill in April, Nicholas Sbordone, director of intergovernmental affairs at DOITT, testified that 180 days was a sufficient amount of time to create the map — provided DoITT had the NYPD’s cooperation.

“Six months development time should be enough, but that’s from the point at which we have everything we need to start building,” Sbordone said during a hearing on the mapping bill.

DoITT already manages a similar tool, the NYCityMap, which provides street-level information on city health and human services, transportation, and construction projects. NYCityMap could have provided a model, or at least a base, for the creation of the crime-mapping tool. In addition, the city council set aside $75,000 to implement the crime map. All of the money allocated for implementation was to go toward hiring a technology consultant for four months to assist in getting the site up and running.

Still, it may not be technological challenges but data that is holding up the process. Liberating New York’s crime data, if history is any indicator, can be a difficult endeavor. In April 2013, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio released a “Transparency Report Card” giving the NYPD a failing grade for the department’s failure to respond to one-third of freedom of information requests. In 2008, it took a New York Civil Liberties Union lawsuit to liberate stop-and-frisk data from the New York Police Department.

Currently, the NYPD publicly reports crime data only at the precinct level. Councilmember Brewer — who led the charge to pass a separate, sweeping open data law putting a large volume of city government information online — said during a hearing on the crime-mapping measure that it would not only increase the public’s access to information but aid community boards in charting a smart path forward for their neighborhoods.

One unresolved question is whether the data underlying the map will be made available in a downloadable format or otherwise accessible to technology developers, researchers and others who want to analyze and repurpose the information. While under Brewer’s law all public city data must eventually be posted on a web portal in a machine-readable format, the crime map may for now provide only a visual glimpse of incidents and their locations.

“We are as eager as anybody to get our hands on the data,” said Nathan Storey, product manager at data encyclopedia and visualization platform PediaCities, who has testified before the Council on open data policy. While he is aware that the city has missed its deadline for the map’s release, “a bigger issue for us is whether the raw data, that is behind the map, will be released, and released in a form we can easily use.”

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