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Civic Apps: Can They Help Fight Crime?

The few cross fertilizations between civic data enthusiasts and police departments are bring together the needs of safe communities with law enforcement’s efforts to fight crime and improve public safety.

by / September 25, 2014
Attendees at the Safer Communities Hackathon at Google Chicago use the windows as whiteboards. Flickr/Christopher Whitaker

It’s a remarkable sight. Pay a visit to the city of Chicago’s data portal, open up the latest crime data map and you can see a year’s worth of crime information displayed geographically, down to the block. It’s an amazing example of what can be done with open data.

In 2011, shortly after he was inaugurated, Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a treasure trove of city data for public consumption, some of it geo-based information, including up-to-date crime incident data, which used to be available in hard-to-access aggregated formats that came out just once a month.  

The city’s open data strategy has given civic hackers a substantial boost, helping put a spotlight on the possibilities of merging open data with law enforcement. These kinds of cross fertilizations between civic data enthusiasts and police departments are still in their embryonic stages, but the few examples out there are tantalizing in terms of bringing together the needs of safe communities with law enforcement’s efforts to fight crime and improve public safety.

In 2013, Chicago city officials sponsored a “safe communities” hackathon using the police department’s latest application programming interface called ClearMap. Participants had a crack at using new methods to query crimes, wanted lists and mug shots, as well as graffiti problems, vacant building code violations and even police beat boundaries. The result has been a wave of apps that Chicagoans can use to track crime and improve public safety, according to Smart Chicago, an online civic organization that uses technology to improve life in the Windy City.

The success of Chicago’s crime hackathon has spawned others, including one run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in May, and sponsored by AT&T, Google, Intel and Apperian. One of the winners was a mobile app created by Theo Rushin Jr., who developed Beacon, which lets an injured or lost person in an emergency situation send out a preconfigured distressed notice to anyone designated as a recipient. A second companion app sends out continuous updates on the location of the individual in trouble.

In Redlands, Calif., city officials have worked with software firm Cityworks to incorporate a mobile civic engagement app called CitySourced that can act as service request tool for residents. The city sees CitySourced as a rapid first step toward an eventual 311 call center that would allow residents to report problems and complaints. The app could also be leveraged by the Redlands Police Department as a tool for monitoring illegally parked cars. 

In Philadelphia, the city’s 2012 Code for America fellowship led to the creation of Textizen, another type of mobile messaging platform for public safety, law enforcement and criminal justice agencies that helps them access, analyze and track difficult-to-reach population groups. “The running theme is that communications makes or breaks a program,” said Textizen co-founder Michelle Lee. Examples of how Textizen supports public safety range from letting neighbors know to double-check doors if their block is getting targeted for burglaries to reliable reporting and communication during someone’s parole. “Too often that communication happens through manual channels that don’t fit today’s busy lives,” Lee said.

Not all public safety and crime apps are created by hackers. Last year, the Virginia State Police launched a crime reporting app. Called See Something, Send Something, it’s known as a suspicious activity reporting tool and was created by My Mobile Witness to connect individuals, law enforcement agencies and regional fusion centers, which collect and analyze intelligence on criminals and terrorists. So what does the Virginia State Police want citizens to report? “Suspicious photography, vehicles or people in places that just look out of place,” Maj. Rick Jenkins told Fox5 News in Woodbridge, Va.

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Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.

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