By Sharon Paley

Data Into Dollars: SpotCrime Maps Crime Data

Posted July 30th, 2014

When Colin Drane’s GPS was stolen from his car, a little lightbulb went off in his head. The incident got him thinking about crime and its connection to geography. He spoke to Socrata about crime data, location, and mapping.

“I had a police report to show that the car had been broken into, but I wanted to see where it happened, and if my neighbors had reported similar incidents,” Drane says. So, seven years ago, Drane started mapping the crimes he found reported in his local newspaper. At the time, that was the best way to get crime data quickly.

Those early mapping efforts have become SpotCrime, an independent publishing company reporting data on crimes effecting 60% of the U.S. population, for which Colin Drane now serves as CEO. This year, the company expects about 12 million unique visitors to its site, in addition to emailing more than 110 million crime alerts to its 700,000 subscribers.

“Our biggest innovation has been such a simple one,” Drane admits. “We allow people, HOAs, and other neighborhood groups to subscribe to alerts about their own specified radius, and we send them weekly reports on crimes for that area, as well as week-to-week comparisons of the data. The other companies doing this work don’t provide alerts or email you maps.”

The true innovation might be SpotCrime’s citizen-facing business model. “Our primary interaction is with the public,” asserts Drane, “ And, unlike our competitors, we have no financial or other relationship with any police department. There is no agenda behind what we publish. It’s just open data made understandable and user-friendly.”

SpotCrime also allows for layer of data in overlapping jurisdictions. Drane describes a situation where you live in a college town with railroad tracks near your backyard. You may have the local, campus, or transit police addressing an issue in your neighborhood. By going directly to the town’s open data portal, you’ll miss what the college and railroad are doing. SpotCrime tracks and layers all this data.

Looking to the future, SpotCrime plans to build and offer crime analysis tools for everyone to use. “It would be ideal to allow people to easily compare burglary,” Drane suggests, “In their neighborhood with that of a bordering jurisdiction. But that’s still in development. It requires greater data standardization, which is coming slowly.”

To this end, SpotCrime has introduced standards for crime reporting based on their close knowledge of the data and the way that citizens want to consume it. In an effort to encourage municipalities, agencies, and police departments to adopt similar standards, they’ve developed the SpotCrime Open Crime Standard (SOCS.) The goal of the standards are threefold:

  • help agencies collaborate
  • close the gap between police, residents, and developers
  • allow crime data to be understood on a local, region, national, and international level

“The more informed you are about crime in your neighborhood, the more vigilant you become. So that’s one way comprehensible open crime data empowers the public to improve public safety. But, it’s also good for cities,” Drane continues, “More transparent police departments earn more community trust, so they can work more cooperative with the public. That means cutting down on crime more efficiently, which can save money. And, that’s in addition to open systems just being more cost effective from the onset.”

While Colin Drane and SpotCrime are ardent promoters of crime open data, the company’s work has transformed citizens into advocates as well. When Columbus, Ohio moved from open crime data reporting to a walled system, SpotCrime sent emails to all the area’s subscribers not just letting them know their weekly email alerts were not going to show up anymore, but also organizing a campaign calling for the return of public access to the city’s crime data. In short order, the mayor ordered the police department back to an open system.

As Drane reports, “Although it feels like crime data is very political, we hear very few complaints about what the data reveal. Governments are sometimes fearful of opening this information, but it doesn’t create as much havoc as they often fear. In fact, transparency instills comfort in most people.”