Empower New Orleans citizens; support open source solutions!
Posted by schroeder915 on February 19, 2007
To create a successful information-driven society, and a well-informed citizenry, public policy should promote the open source development of services, and make every effort to eliminate ownership over raw data. When data becomes an exclusive domain, citizens may not get the information they need to make critical decisions. This could be a life-and-death issue when that data could reveal to citizens critical information about the safety of their neighborhoods. For too many years, the City of New Orleans has manipulated and reported crime information as a tool to control public opinion, arguing that it has an exclusive right to the raw data. Wise citizens should be wary of private entities trying to do the same thing — limiting access to information for private benefit and, thus, stifling the data transformation solutions which might arise from open access to the raw data.
New Orleanians have always wanted easier and more timely access to information about crime, arrests, and prosecutions (or releases). Citizens have been advocating more loudly than ever before that they should have access to those records. The first hurdle — what ought to be the easiest one to clear — is asserting citizen ownership the raw 911 calls for service records. These are the records of every call placed to 911, warehoused in city data systems. The NOPD receives a daily file of those 911 records via an electronic file transfer. It would be simple to add another file recipient to the list of destination addresses.
The question, then, is who else should receive that file? One wouldn’t want to have ask the city to manage a list of recipients. It would be far better to identify a single unbiased, non-governmental entity to receive and host the data for any citizen who wishes to use it. Then, the value of the data wouldn’t be the data itself, but what citizens themselves decide to do with the data in an open society. The true value isn’t in the data itself, per se, but instead in the ways that the data can be transformed into more meaningful ways — tables, charts, maps: data transformation services.
Citizens want to know some basic facts: Where, how much, and what types of crime are occurring in their neighborhoods? Is crime rising or falling? Are there identifiable patterns of crime? Is the criminal justice system responding in an appropriate manner to emerging threats? There are a number of different ways to represent answers to those questions.
No one entity has all of the solutions, nor should one entity be trusted to publish accurate reports. This is precisely why a society which permits a free flow of raw data — allowing developers to openly access the data and to provide meaningful answers — will inevitably produce a result which far exceeds what any private entity could accomplish. Furthermore, open access to data guarantees that those information services don’t just cease when a private entity no longer sees a private benefit from using the data.
A letter to the editor today underscores a deficit of understanding in the community about how the open source principles I’ve outlined above would better serve citizens than private, exclusive principles.
Residents want to see crime statistics reported accurately and in real time, which has not been done by the police on their Web site.
A proven program called NOCrime has been endorsed by the City Council 7-0, though the council did not provide money. This program would take reporting the crimes out of the hands of police and politicians who have an interest in keeping the crime statistics low.
Such a program could help residents understand the crime in their neighborhoods, work with the police to prevent crime and ensure transparency in crime reporting.
The writer is supporting an initiative being marketed around town lately to provide citizens with a crime mapping system. Unfortunately, there are, at best, exaggerated claims made about what the system was in the past, and what it will provide in the future.
The first issue citizens should consider is that the NOCrime “proven program” was a short-lived crime-mapping initiative which has now been defunct for more than ten years. Citizens really should ask what happened to the NOCrime Web site and advocacy after funding dried up? Secondly, if the NOCrime concept is so brilliant, why are there, at present, no crime mapping systems on the NOCrime Web site? There’s nothing on the NOCrime Web site now but a bunch of links to other organizations. All citizens are told by NOCrime marketers is that if their idea is supported financially, it “could” help residents.
Why not start helping us now? Indeed, the open source solutions to provide crime mapping, reporting, and alert systems already exist. What might once have required a significant investment ten years ago, when the NOCrime concept was first conceived, now only requires tapping into the freely-available mapping services in a Google maps, or Yahoo maps, mashup. All that’s lacking is the raw crime data. Indeed, there are already a number of developers who have demonstrated an interest in mapping crime, and who have resorted to very creative approaches to finding data — albeit not current data — in order to get around the lack of access to the raw 911 calls for service data.
So why isn’t NOCrime supporting an open source solution, by which anyone in the community could access raw crime data to develop services for the community? Why isn’t NOCrime supporting the concept of a third party entity hosting and sharing the raw 911 calls for service data? Could it be that NOCrime has outlived its usefulness, and therefore, the only thing left to latch onto is owning the raw data for private benefit? NOCrime should be required to prove that it has the capacity to develop its own privately-owned services by sharing access to 911 calls for service data with competing citizen initiatives.
The ownership distinction is subtle — ownership of data vs. ownership of services — but it is absolutely imperative that the community not work to ingratiate one entity or another, and that it get behind an initiative to empower all citizens to develop their own robust data transformation services which outlive the interest of private entities. Moreover, in the case of reporting crime information, the best solution will be obtained when community ownership over services — not just data — is promoted as public policy. Never should rewards be derived from clutching onto data for control over information and financial resources. Neither does private development of data transformation systems serve the community effectively and in perpetuity. With open access to data, and open source development of services, the community always owns the information systems it relies upon. There is no other alternative which provides the community with absolute ownership of, and confidence in, the information they have a right to know.
The City Council is hedging on this issue, being won over by persistent NOCrime marketing tactics. Citizens need to be vocal in their support of open access/open source solutions — now — before a decision is made by the Council to support a private entity whose track record fails to demonstrate a true commitment of service to the community.