Dave Reid

MPD, MPS, and Open Data

By - Dec 10th, 2010 03:46 pm
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CIty of Milwaukee Police Department

Bradley Tech, a fight, gangs, guns, and more squad cars than you can count.  And no news.  Why?  What happened?

For years much of the crime reporting on the evening news worked like this:  Listen to scanner, put out news story.

But today with the Milwaukee Police Department’s move to OpenSky radios, and more importantly to digitally encrypted communications, the days of scanner based reporting are coming to an end.  Maybe that’s a good thing, because having officer communications listened to in real time could possibly impact their security.  But somewhere between MPD and MPS, a press release, statement, or a news conference should of been held to notify the public of the events.  It didn’t happen.

Representatives from MPD responded to complaints that the public wasn’t notified by pointing out that the calls for service were visible on the City of Milwaukee’s website, at least for awhile.  And yes, a close look at the page might have clued a very astute, and likely bored, reporter to notice something big had happened.  But even this would only have been possible within a short window of time, and only with very careful monitoring, as after 90 minutes the data is no longer available from the website.  Removing the data after 90 minutes is hardly open, accurate, or easily monitored.

The impact of this lack of communication has Alderman Bob Donovan calling out Milwaukee Public Schools for a cover-up and there are citizens that think there is a MPD cover-up as well, but what is clear is there has been a lack of transparency.  Cover-up or not, what needs to be learned is that openness of public information makes for good government.

Alderman Donovan has suggested allowing certain news agencies access to the radio communications, and although that is one solution, another is to work towards providing the dispatch log in an open machine readable format.  This would offer developers and news agencies the opportunity to build mashups, a web application that combines data from multiples source, to monitor the activities of MPD.  These applications could include mapping tools, alert systems, and even monitoring applications to start, but with the addition of other data, such as liquor licenses or violations, citizens would be better prepared to work with the city in improving their neighborhoods.

This may never replace the level of detail that officer to officer communications once provided, but it could be a small step towards open government in Milwaukee and hopefully a big step away from conflict and disenfranchisement.

Categories: Gov 2.0

8 thoughts on “MPD, MPS, and Open Data”

  1. Dan Knauss says:

    All good points Dave, but the concern about officer safety is not really valid and tends to be used just as an argument for keeping things closed. Thousands of police and fire departments have public web feeds of their communications. Generally it’s live, but running a delay is possible. I’m sure in certain scenarios the public feed might be cut or other non-public radio channels might be used at certain times or for special units, but generally the feed is just what you’d get with a scanner in the past. It excludes communication between officers by cell phones, and the radio discipline police are trained in includes ways of talking (or not talking) that would divulge information they don’t want to get out. They don’t set up around the corner from a place they’re about to raid and talk about it like that.

  2. Dave Reid says:

    @Dan I’m certainly open to the audio feed, as long as it is done safely. That’s all (I know people can listen on scanners to old radio systems today so yes it is not like they haven’t had to deal with this issue before).

  3. Adam says:

    I wonder how hard it would be to run an automatic aggregator that saves this information to another website, possibly even plotting the locations for the day on Google Maps.

  4. Dave Reid says:

    @Adam The issue is that the format the data is provided will require a scraper to be written, as opposed to logical API calls. But that is definitely doable:)

  5. Dan Knauss says:

    @Adam You are describing what Spotcrime.com has done for a few years first with COMPASS data harvested from eNotify and then the 911 dispatch logs. They scrape several local sources but 99% of it seems to be the dispatch logs. They have an open API for their data that is just not fully built out or widely publicized. Their interface is not great, so they seem to be experimenting with a more usable presentation at http://www.mylocalcrime.com. Neither one really allows for good advanced searching and filtering or analytics. Making it simple to do some basic statistical analysis would be nice. The distribution of call types in a given area probably indicate something about the relative level of “crime, fear, and disorder” especially in relation to other data sets, such as change in owner-occupancy, home values, etc. Benchmarking this data for any level of scale from a block to the whole city would be valuable.

    Here is an example where you an see some Northwest side NSP areas’ crime and property-related information after DNS and MPS data is aggregated there: http://www.nwscdc.org/html/community/map/

    More info at: http://nwscdc.org/community/html/map

    Source code: https://github.com/geofflane/enotify [Based on Ruby on Rails 2.x]

    City officials may wish to suppress these data sets as bad PR, but the reality is that lying to people is bad PR. As the Bradley Tech incident demonstrated, you can’t lie to people and get away with suppression in an independently self-organizing networked world.

    Public urban data is coming online more and more. It has been used longest by the really estate industry, and I’m sure many others will discover value too. Money Magazine and Forbes are using municipal data sources to analyze and rate cities and their neighborhoods. Providing the data at the source openly is not just about “transparency” — it means participating in the next iteration of the web as a giant data rich set of shared databases.

    For that reason, executive decisions to censor public data at the source will mark off the cities that refuse to participate in the 21st century global economy and culture. Their blacked out status will be a big red flag that says corrupt, self-serving, tax-fed ripoff artists and information tyrants preside here over a dead economy—STAY AWAY!

  6. Dan Knauss says:

    ha, I really meant “real estate industry.”

  7. Jamie Gunn says:

    Hey Dave –

    I know this is an old article, but don’t you think that “Officer Security” is a terrible argument? Its not like the bad guys are listening to the scanners so they can set-up an ambush. The bad guys are the ones doing the crimes, so they already are at the site when the police arrive – no scanner needed.

    As far as generating an API – this is only a matter of a political decision. The data is already aggregated and stored in some type of data structure. Creating a number of web services would be fairly simple using modern server side toolsets.

    As far as visualizing the data – clearly someone would have to do some work, but UI charting frameworks such as highcharts.com would give a civic minded software developer a leg-up into hacking something together.

  8. Dave Reid says:

    @Jamie I was just giving them the benefit of the doubt on the radio transmission stuff. If it isn’t a problem then sure have the feed available, that said I think opening up the data can allow for even better transparency….

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