Sometimes simple things make all the difference.
Chicagocrime.org was launched in May by 24-year-old Chicago resident Adrian Holovaty, because, as he put it, it was an interesting technical challenge and a chance to help the community.
"My background is pretty evenly split between journalism, databases and computer programming, and this was an opportunity to combine all three," Holovaty said. "My goal for the project was to create a useful resource for Chicagoans."
Despite lacking a GIS background, he built chicagocrime.org from scratch to take publicly available data from the Chicago Police Department's official Citizen Information Collection for Automated Mapping (ICAM) Web site and integrate that data with Google maps.
It shows detailed hour-by-hour lists of all crime reports in a public service twist on what some have started to describe as a "Google hack" -- creatively harnessing Google's powerful tools to enrich specialized Web sites.
Because Google charts each point on its maps by latitude and longitude, Web developers have started to match up these points with other databases, producing GIS displays of information for such things as reported crimes in Chicago, real-estate listings in New York and sex offenders in Florida.
"I was looking for a side project to work on when I stumbled upon the Citizen ICAM site," Holovaty said. "That site is very useful, but I thought I could create a site that supplemented it by offering additional ways of sorting and searching the data."
Chicagocrime.org lets users search for crimes by type, such as arson, homicide, assault or gambling. It allows people to browse streets and map nearby crimes. They can also search by ZIP code, police beat or specific kinds of locations, such as ATMs, Chicago Transit Authority train stations, gas stations or bowling alleys.
Citizen ICAM only gives access to 90 days worth of crime data, and there is a one-week delay before crime reports are available. Because chicagocrime.org gets all its data from Citizen ICAM, this site has the same limitations. Despite the lag, Holovaty said, the site presents information in a new way that's useful to concerned citizens.
Even the Chicago Police are impressed with the result. "We think it's great," said Jonathan Lewin, commander of the Information Services Division of the Chicago Police Department. "It's very innovative, taking data that we're already publishing on our crime site, which has been up since late 2000. By repackaging that information, presenting it in a highly interactive way with hyperlinks all over the place, it is easy to explore and to drill up and down in the data. It does some creative things with mapping."
Lewin said he and his whole staff of managers have already met with Holovaty.
"If anything, I want to strengthen our partnership with him because I think this improves our ability to better engage the community as part of our policing efforts," Lewin added. "That's the whole basis of everything we are trying to do, and we want to expand the amount of information we make accessible to citizens."
Holovaty's site is built using open source software -- Apache Web server, the PostgreSQL database server and the Python programming language.
"I chose these technologies because they're the best tools for the job," he said.
In total, Holovaty estimates that he has spent about 50 hours on chicagocrime.org, and Web designer Wilson Miner estimates an additional 30 hours on the design and presentation.
"Since its launch, I haven't spent much time on it, other than adding a few features such as color-coded map markers and ZIP code browsing," Holovaty said.