Disputes over crime maps highlight challenge of outsourcing public data

Colin Drane is an unlikely warrior in the fight for open government.

An inventor and TV infomercial producer, Drane spent much of his career marketing products like the Trunkanizer  for organizing car trunks, a toy called Bendaroos, and Invisi-lift self-adhesive breast enhancement pads.

Six years ago, Drane started a different kind of business – a company called ReportSee, which operates the website SpotCrime.com. The site obtains publicly available crime records from police agencies and graphically displays them on colorful maps.

Drane says the site attracts a million views a month from people curious about the burglaries, shootings, and other bedlam in their towns. The site makes money through advertising and from partnerships with television stations and other media organizations.

“Its primary appeal is folks involved in neighborhood watches and people who want to know what’s going on their communities,” Drane said in a phone interview. He said the information on SpotCrime, which typically is culled from police department logs and incident reports, can make communities safer.

“If an unusual van is in the neighborhood, and everybody knows there’s been a rash of burglaries, maybe somebody takes time to call the police, where maybe in the past it would have been brushed off,” he said.

More than 300 law-enforcement agencies around the country cooperate with Drane and provide him electronic access to their crime reports. But he’s had conflicts with dozens of other agencies, which either deny him access entirely or provide information that’s dated or incomplete.

Often, he finds that agencies already have struck deals with one of his larger competitors. The owners of sites such as CrimeReports.com, CrimeMapping.com, and RAIDS online compile and publish similar maps.

“Police departments contract with a vendor and give them preferential access to very important public data,” Drane said. “If you’ve got agencies controlling the information through a vendor, that’s not full transparency, and it limits accountability.”

Public data: profitable and contentious

Drane’s situation isn’t unique. As private companies have discovered there’s profit to be made from some kinds of government records, public agencies increasingly are outsourcing parts of their recordkeeping. That’s led to disputes over whether private firms can receive exclusive or preferential access to public data, copyright it, or withhold it from business competitors and other parties who request it.

“Conflicts are becoming more common,” said Peter Scheer of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit California group that advocates for open government. “The demand for data and the perceived value in data has been rising exponentially, and that’s raising thorny legal-access questions.”

California, Connecticut and Wisconsin are among the states that have seen lawsuits over GIS data — the mapping technology local governments use to track property records. Scheer’s group successfully sued to access Santa Clara County’s GIS database, which the county claimed was a copyrighted “trade secret.” In the Wisconsin case, courts ruled that municipalities’ land records are in the public domain and forced a private contractor to release records to its competitors.

Drane has been sued, too. In 2010, the owner of CrimeReports.com – a company called Public Engines — discovered SpotCrime was robotically “scraping” CrimeReports.com for police data. Though Drane claimed he was entitled to scrape his competitors’ sites because the original police reports are public records, he agreed to stop the practice as part of a legal settlement. (Nieman Lab summarized the issues raised by the lawsuit in this 2011 analysis.)

Indeed, Drane is at the center of much of the tension in the crime-mapping industry, not surprising for an unconventional and sometimes brash entrepreneur who describes himself as a “disrupter.” SpotCrime is a relatively low-budget operation that Drane said he started because “moving data seemed a lot easier than moving Trunkanizers.”

In many ways, his business couldn’t be more different than that of his competitors, such as Public Engines, the Omega Group — owner of CrimeMapping.com, and Bair Analytics — owner of the RAIDS online site. Those companies are larger firms that develop and market technology for law-enforcement agencies. They sell software that not only powers public crime mapping websites but also provides an array of tools the agencies use internally to compile and analyze data.  (Think of an electronic equivalent to those big maps with pushpins that used to hang in police stations.)

“People look at our website and see that obviously as a public-facing manifestation of the law-enforcement data,” Public Engines CEO William Kilmer said in a phone interview. “But our primary mission is really to help law-enforcement agencies unlock the power of their own data for their own analysis.”

Those computerized crime mapping systems have become important tools for law-enforcement agencies over the past two decades. For a relatively small investment, the software allows police to identify crime patterns and “hot spots” in their communities and make decisions about staffing and resources.

Kilmer said his company is aware it’s dealing with records that belong to the public. While Public Engines doesn’t allow competitors to scrape its website, he said there’s nothing in its contracts that prohibits police agencies from releasing crime data to anybody else who requests it.

That point was echoed by the Omega Group, which provides software and mapping tools for more than 600 law-enforcement agencies.

“The agency has the right to give whatever data they want to give,” said Omega spokeswoman Gabriela Coverdale.

Police agencies try to control information

Still, some police departments appear to treat their contracts with Public Engines or Omega as exclusive or at least preferential.

When Drane’s company requested access to Las Vegas police records under the Nevada public-records law, he said the police department’s public information office wrote him in an email that “we have no need to join with more of these kinds of services such as yours than we already have in place.” Las Vegas contracts with Omega and its crime reports are posted online via CrimeMapping.com.

Likewise, the Omaha, Neb., police department contracts with Omega and won’t release electronic records to Drane.

“The reason we signed a contract with CrimeMapping.com is so we have control over the information released,” Lt. Darci Tierney told me in an email. “There is no legal obligation for our department to provide additional information beyond access to records that we provide to the general public upon request in hard copy format for a nominal fee.“

But that policy — which allows CrimeMapping.com to access police records electronically, but restricts other requestors to “hard copy format” — likely violates Nebraska’s open-records law, according to several legal scholars.

“Since some company is getting these records in electronic form, you can also get them in electronic form,” said Nebraska Press Association attorney Shawn Renner. It doesn’t matter that one company has a contractual relationship with the city, that SpotCrime is small and not well-known, or that Drane’s motive in requesting the records is to profit from them.

“The records are open to all for any purpose,” said Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. “We define journalism quite broadly, so an online outfit that’s in the business of taking data and presenting it in an informative way is engaging in a journalistic activity.”

Caramanica worries that if police agencies are allowed to withhold crime data from for-profit websites that compete with their preferred vendor, they may start denying information to mainstream media organizations (most of which, of course, also are in business to make money), bloggers, advocacy groups, or individuals.

It’s not a big jump. Part of the reason police departments contract with the crime mapping services in the first place is to ease the workload on their often overburdened staffs. Public Engines boasts on its website that CrimeReports.com helps “free up time for employees who used to try and answer [citizen] questions by phone.”

“Some of it is just administrative ease,” said University of Missouri Journalism Prof. Charles Davis, co-author of two books on public records. “They can kind of wash their hands of the whole issue, and say ‘if you want that stuff, it’s on the website.’ ”

Likewise, some agencies may see their relationship with a crime mapping vendor as a way to bypass the traditional media.

Public Engines’ website highlights the experience of the Boca Raton, Fla., police department, which stopped sending press releases to local media. The site says that when police agencies partner with CrimeReports.com,“[t]he power to interpret crime data has now moved out of the hands of the traditional media gatekeepers and into the hands of citizens themselves.”

Computerized data, ‘manila envelope’ laws

In and of itself, direct public access to information isn’t a bad thing. Police reporting in the mainstream media can be simplistic or sensationalistic and lack context about the actual risk of crime in various communities. An accurate online crime map can offer information that’s more complete, more local, and easier to access than a newspaper police blotter or the murder-and-mayhem stories that are nightly staples of many TV newscasts.

But in order for online crime mapping to live up to its promise, police agencies need to see it as a way to broaden access to information, not narrow it. The raw data generated from modern crime analysis tools — such as those marketed by Public Engines or the Omega Group — should be considered public information and made available to the public, the media, and even those companies’ competitors. That will allow such data to be disseminated more widely and analyzed in more ways.

And because police generally include in crime mapping databases only a portion of what they know about each particular incident — for instance, names of victims or suspects are usually deleted — the standard long-form police reports and daily crime logs must remain easily available, too.

Davis expects more disputes and litigation as governments increasingly entrust public data to private companies, especially in states where public-records laws fail to clarify contractors’ obligation to share information. He said only a handful of state laws even contemplate the possibility that public recordkeeping may be outsourced.

“These are laws written in the age of manila envelopes and the typewriter,” Davis said. “This is one of a dozen different issues where technology has raced in front of the law.”

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