In any city that tops 1.5 million residents there’s likely to be crime. Philadelphia is no different. It has petty thefts, burglaries, assaults and every so often there is the tragedy of homicide — 58 to date in 2014 already.
And yet, while crime is a part of our 21st-century reality, it doesn’t necessarily have to be part of our everyday lives. This is the premise a group of six civic hackers worked under to launch RentSafe, a new open source Web application that combines Philadelphia's crime data and housing information to map criminal activity with home listings. The group presents it as a crime-detection tool for renters and prospective homebuyers.
Posted on GitHub by Philadelphia LadyHacks, a women’s group of civic hackers, the app was assembled in a mere six hours during a hackathon on March 8. The team — that consisted of Stacey Mosley, Angie Hilem, Amber Heilman, Sally Kong, Connie Lin and (the only male in the group) Team Mentor Mjumbe Poe — collaborated by connecting the app to the city’s crime data API and an API, called 3Taps, that scrapes housing data from sites like Craigslist and Apartments.com.
“I hope it’s used as an informative tool and resource for people to show what can be possible when you start layering different types of city data and just different data sets,” said Mosley, team member and data scientist for Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology.
In terms of practicality, the map is simple and makes criminal acts easily apparent. The zoom-in and zoom-out street maps depict crime in a heat map of warmly colored dots. Reds, oranges and yellows categorize a titled and dated listing of incidents. Blues denote a property, while purples highlight schools and greens represent parks.
As an example of the map's illustrated insights, in March there were two vehicle burglaries and an aggravated assault near the city’s Webster Elementary School. And in the center of Philadelphia, a concentration of orange denotes theft as a common occurrence.
“I’m not sure if you're familiar with Philly, but it is straight up block to block,” said Hilem, a beginning coder who decided to join the group. “You can be in one really safe residential area and walk 100 feet and the vibe is just totally different. To know that this data is available publicly is a huge advantage to the entire city.”
Hilem said the idea was prompted, in part, from her past experience as a real estate agent and the need for an app that could locate vacant properties the city could possibly post online to sell or lease. This idea evolved when Mosley offered an idea from her experience working with the city.
“I threw out there, ‘Why don’t we layer the crime data like a heat map over the rental information to reflect what the activity would be like if you were considering moving there,’” Mosley said. “We were able to pull it all together piece by piece.”
Since the app was posted, Mosley said it has enjoyed a welcome share of grass-roots notoriety on Twitter with more than 1,200 views shortly after she posted the link. And Hilem said that for her, the app doubles as a personal accomplishment as a newbie to the world of civic hacking and as a testament to how women can positively impact the community with technology.
“I had a really great sense of accomplishment because I went from never having written code to actually submitting something that you were able to see, and it felt great,” Hilem said.
While there are no current plans for additional features, Mosley is open to considering all options for the app. “If there was future opportunity in it I’m sure we’ll get together again to talk more,” she said. “Right now it’s kind of just living on as its own thing.”
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.