Canada Research Chair in Information Law,
Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa
Municipal police services in North America now commonly make digital crime maps available to the public online. These interactive maps allow individuals to choose a particular part of their city, as well as a window of time (crimes in the last 7, 14 or 21 days, for example). They can search for all mapped crimes in this time frame or can limit their search to particular types of crime. The results are returned in the form of icons on a map of the selected area. The icons represent different categories of criminal activity, and clicking on each icon will reveal basic information about the incident.
The maps can be used for many purposes. For example, someone who is thinking of parking their vehicle overnight in a particular part of the city might search to see if there are many thefts of vehicles or thefts from vehicles in that area. Prospective home buyers or renters might also use the maps to assess the incidence of crime in neighbourhoods they are considering. Most crime maps of this kind allow users to sign up for email alerts about crime in their neighbourhoods, and the maps also provide a means for individuals to send in tips about mapped crimes.
A police service that decides to offer an interactive crime map to the public can choose to create their own crime map (usually by hiring a tech services company to build one) (for examples of this option see the maps from Winnipeg or Halifax) or they can contract with one of a number of leading crime mapping companies in North America. These companies typically offer a range of data analytics services to police. Often the crime maps are offered for free, with the hope that the police service will purchase other analytics services. The 3 leading companies are all based in the United States, but they offer hosting on their platform to police services across North America.
In a new paper that has just been published in the International Journal of e-Planning Research, I look at the practice of crime-mapping in 3 Canadian municipalities – Ottawa, London and Saint John. The police services in each of these cities have contracted with a different one of the 3 leading U.S.-based crime mapping companies. In my paper I consider how these crime maps present particular narratives of crime in the city. These narratives may be influenced in subtle or not so subtle ways by the fact that the mapping platform is U.S.-based. These influences may show up in the rhetoric around the crime maps used by the host company, the crimes or other types of data chosen (or not chosen) for mapping, and the descriptions on the host platforms of the type of data featured on the maps. I also evaluate the quality of the mapped data, and explore how laws shape and constrain the use and reuse of crime data.
While the crime maps are superficially attractive and easy to use, there is reason to be concerned about their use. In my research for this paper, I learned that it is possible to access the maps either through the host company’s site or through the police service’s website. Depending on the route chosen, the messaging (including a description of the mapped data, the purpose of the map, and its limitations) is different. While disclaimers on the police services’ sites may warn of the limitations of the data provided, those who access through the host platform are unaware of these deficiencies. The mapped data provide a very partial account of crime in the city, and critics of this type of crime mapping have raised concern both about the potentially misleading nature of the maps, and the particular narrative of urban crime they convey.
My paper also explores issues of control and ownership of the mapped data and the impact that this has on the ability of civil society groups either to critically assess the data or to create other tools and analytics that might combine crime data with other urban data. While the crime mapping platforms do not claim ownership of the data that they map (according to the sites, ownership rests with the police services), they do prohibit the scraping of data from their sites – and there is evidence of legal action taken to pursue data scrapers. In most cases, police services do not make the same data provided to the crime mapping companies available as open data. This allows the police service (in conjunction with the limitations built into the crime mapping platforms) to largely control how the data is presented to the public. At the same time, the presence of a publicly accessible crime map might itself be used by a police service as a justification for not making the same crime data available as open data. (I note that Vancouver, which hired a company to create its own crime map, also makes the mapped data available as open data (although it updates it with less frequency than the mapped data).
Ultimately, the paper asks whether this model of crime mapping advances or limits goals of transparency and accountability, and what lessons it offers about the use of private sector civic technologies to serve public sector purposes.