Motorola Parts with Socrata, Ends Access to Open Crime APIs

The end of the partnership means a loss of public access to tabulated crime data collected by Motorola Solutions, which various crime-mapping websites and open data advocates have found useful.

by / December 23, 2019

A three-and-a-half-year partnership between Motorola Solutions and Socrata is coming to an end, and with it a source of open data that populated crime-mapping websites around the country. Last week, Motorola closed public access to nationwide crime data that used to be available for download in machine-readable format at moto.data.socrata.com, to the chagrin of people who used that data for public transparency or policy research.

The partnership was initially supposed to end in June, but according to an emailed statement from Motorola spokeswoman Mary Alice Johnson, Motorola put it off until the end of this year to “minimize disruption” to customers and the public. Socrata, a government software company and a pioneer in the open data movement, was acquired in April 2018 by Motorola competitor Tyler Technologies. A spokesman for Tyler theorized in June that their competition in the public safety space was the reason for the split.

In any case, the immediate consequence of Motorola and Socrata parting ways is twofold: the disappearance of Socrata’s open crime data APIs, which tabulated incident information (type, date, location, suspect descriptions, etc.) collected from Motorola’s 1,000-plus law enforcement agency customers; and the shuttering of crime-mapping website CrimeReports.com, which Motorola has replaced with a new crime map at CityProtect.com, minus the APIs.

Nina Minney, a spokeswoman for Tyler Technologies, confirmed the end of CrimeReports.com and Socrata’s involvement was Dec. 16.

Motorola declined requests for an interview.

Among those disappointed about losing the open crime data APIs was Colin Drane, founder of crime-mapping website SpotCrime, which he said is the largest aggregator of publicly available crime data in the U.S. He told Government Technology that without access to Socrata’s open data, SpotCrime and the public have lost a link to law enforcement agencies that cover 14 to 16 percent of the U.S. population.

Drane said a searchable map like CityProtect doesn’t cover what was lost, because it doesn’t give people a tabulated version of the data, like a spreadsheet they could search and mine. He said none of the vendor mapping systems on the market give law enforcement this ability, either, and that’s why Motorola might be able to sell the data to big businesses, for choosing which neighborhoods to build in. He summarized his disapproval as a desire for “less pretty maps, more data.”

“The public loses. The Socrata platform (was) a public platform that anyone can access — any journalist, anybody who wants to see what is happening with crime data in their city … If industry can have the data for site selection, why can’t citizens have it and tabulate it and share it?” he said. “I think the rationale is, it’s just not an important part of a billion-dollar company. It’s super important for us, we couldn’t do it, but my understanding is … every customer that they gained in the last 12 years now has to re-sign up for a new alerting system under CityProtect. The attrition, or the citizen loss of information, seems like it’s going to be pretty high.”

Drew Mingl, the open data coordinator for the state of Utah, said he had been using Socrata’s open data APIs for years to pull incident reports from 56 law enforcement agencies, which he would then share on the state’s own citizen-facing portal.

“I wrote a script in Python where I would just run it, and I could get every single up-to-date police report in the state of Utah in less than three minutes. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of rows of data,” he said.

Mingl cited several uses for the data, including a time when the state was opening new homeless resource centers, and it used crime logs to analyze whether policy changes had reduced crime or simply dispersed it to surrounding cities. He said the information collected by Motorola could also reveal, for example, if a particular police department was writing excessive citations to boost revenue.

Outside his own department, Mingl recalled another project that would not have been possible without Socrata’s open data APIs. He hosts hackathons every year at Utah State University, and a few years ago, some Japanese students used the data to create an app called RedZone to flag dangerous areas for out-of-towners to avoid.

“We were looking at using that data for criminal justice research, to inform policy decisions and stuff like that. In my opinion, that was the value of it,” he said. “It’s sad, really, for transparency and criminal justice reform. Because Motorola knows that the data they have, that nobody else can get, has real value, so there’s literally no incentive for them to share that.”

Broadly concerned with public transparency and the criminal justice system, Mingl drew a comparison between Motorola’s decision and the policies of courts and jails, from whom “it’s like pulling teeth” getting aggregated data, because they sell that data to insurance companies and other entities.

“Court data, jail data, police data — all three of those things need to be available to the public, and they’re just not,” he said.

If he had his druthers, Mingl said, he would apply standards of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 — which requires federal agencies to make their data available in machine-readable format for the public — to states, cities and counties as well.

Editor's note: The attribution of a quote in this story was adjusted for accuracy.

Andrew Westrope Staff Writer

Andrew Westrope is a staff writer for Government Technology. Before that, he was a reporter and editor at community newspapers for seven years. He has a Bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.


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