Digging deeper into Westchester’s gun permit data

Like many journalists, the reporters and editors at The New York World wanted to dig deeper when the Journal News published maps showing, in a sea of red dots, the names and addresses of all pistol-permit holders in New York’s Westchester and Rockland counties.

Which communities had the most registered handgun-owners, in comparison to their population? Were these the counties’ urban, suburban or rural communities; low crime or high crime ones?

We discovered there was an easy way to find out without requesting the information from the counties ourselves. Using his web browser, Mike was able to peek at the code driving the maps, and from there pull all of the underlying information, which he used to create a new database.

In rebuilding the Journal News map, we omitted registrants’ names and addresses, keeping only their towns/cities and zip codes.

You’ll see the results for Westchester here.

The New York World remapped the data to factor in population by zip code, to create a picture of how gun-saturated each community actually is. The results range from fewer than 1 gun permit-holder per 100 residents in parts of White Plans, Mount Vernon and Harrison to more than 3 permit-holders per 100 residents in Eastchester and Thornwood.

Mike was able to pull the data because the Journal News built its project using Google Fusion Tables, the same tool we at the New York World use for many of our interactive projects and for the map above. For users of the free product, the data underlying published Fusion Tables usually remains publicly available.

An FAQ attached to the maps includes the question “Can the entire list be downloaded from the website?” to which the response is: “No. The database behind the maps is not downloadable and the information can not be filtered or sorted. The only way to access the information is to click the dots on the maps one at a time.”

Since we accessed the data earlier this month, the Journal News database has vanished from public view, even while the maps remain available. That’s an option available to subscribers to a premium paid service called Google Maps API for Business.

The Journal News says it has honored its pledge to protect the data from download. “Lohud.com has never offered its visitors a downloadable copy of the gun permit database on our website,” Journal News Editor CynDee Royle said in a email statement to The New York World. “While we have learned that some individuals have been able to structure a work around to access the Google Fusion Table data, those individuals could also have obtained the data from the county clerks offices where it is readily available.”

Since publishing the maps, Journal News staff have faced a barrage of epithets and worse from firearms fans; many employees have found their own home addresess published to the web, and the publisher had to hire armed guards to protect the workplace.

But drowned out in the noise are important questions that every newsroom, including The New York World, has to ask about the care and management of data on the web.

Google calls Fusion Tables an “experimental application,” and it allows for instant visualization of databases through maps and charts. The free tool has quickly democratized mapping and data visualization, taking many aspects of the practice out of the realm of geographic information systems professionals and into the hands of students, scholars, advocates and others who need to rapidly visualize information to make a point. Also in that category are journalists.

So what’s an organization to do? One, understand that if you’re using the free version of Fusion Tables your data is public once you put it on the web, no matter how carefully you think you have it locked down.

Explore other options, which are getting cheaper and easier to use all the time. The New York World also uses CartoDB, a mapping service that for low cost provides the option of creating private tables.

And anytime you’re putting sensitive data out for public consumption on the web, no matter what the platform, expect the unexpected. Users can and will mine the information toward their own ends.

This story has been updated. A previous version discussed the number of registered pistols per 100 residents; the data in fact shows the number of permit holders, who may own multiple guns or none at all.

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