Data Empowers New Haven, Conn., Community

The Homicide Watch website helps memorialize homicide victims, connects detectives with the community and helps them keep track of cases.

Some of New Haven, Conn.'s most well-known crime data gurus -- along with Homicide Watch founder Laura Amico and police Chief Dean Esserman -- came together Monday to talk about open data and the context that goes along with it.

Amico was one of the people who started Homicide Watch in Washington, D.C., in 2010 as a way to leverage and pool the community’s knowledge of homicide victims. The platform has since expanded to Chicago and Trenton, N.J.

The model has become successful in all three locations and the website has a number of facets. It helps memorialize homicide victims, connect detectives with the community and helps keep track of cases. It also provides a space for conversation.

“I know so many people in the community know so much more than I do,” she said.

The site helps bring context to crime statistics that otherwise may be just a name and a number. Amico realized that many people were willing to share information about a person’s life or even information about their death online through social media.

Esserman talked about how the roots of the city’s Police Department existed before the department was officially incorporated. The local night watch and eventually constables would police the community.

Somewhere along the line it became commonplace for police to seal away information that wasn’t critical to an operation, Esserman said. Then improved technology came along.

“Because the information is easily pushed into the world, the world wants to know,” he said.

An example of others beating police to the punch to release information happened recently after two cars and other property were stolen from a residence in the city. A block watch group quickly disseminated information after the incident happened and again when arrests were made and the property was recovered, Esserman said.

Police departments across the nation have to ask themselves what benefit there is to compartmentalizing information that wouldn’t jeopardize an investigation or court case.

“I think the story in the end will be the information we share, not the information we hold,” Esserman said.

Zack Beatty of SeeClickFix talked about the open platform which allows residents to report non-emergency quality of life situations. The company started out of New Haven and is now utilized in all 50 states.

The website has not only drawn attention to small things like potholes, but ongoing issues such as the city’s problem with illegal dirt bike and ATV riders.

Early on, many city halls and police departments in municipalities where SeeClickFix operated had an adversarial relationship with the platform.

Since then, governments have realized the website is a boon and can help aggregate smaller issues that would once be the source of many phone calls to city departments.

Mark Abraham of DataHaven shared some of his work, which helps give context to mounds of data.

©2014 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)