TMCNet:  Crime statistics Web sites vary in accuracy

[November 29, 2008]

Crime statistics Web sites vary in accuracy

(Dallas Morning News, The Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Nov. 29--A growing number of Web sites are crunching local crime data to offer concerned residents a constant flow of e-mail alerts, interactive maps, graphs and charts.

But the information these services rely on and how it's presented can sometimes be unreliable -- a fact some site administrators readily acknowledge.

For Dallas police, the Web sites serve as an added tool for a department that already publishes basic incident reports online. Several of the sites take that data from the Dallas Police Department and other agencies and spit it back out in a variety of formats.


While the services vary in how they present raw numbers -- whether with color-coded dots on a map or less-flashy listings of offenses by ZIP code -- their fundamental purpose is essentially the same. "What these other sites have done, of course, is they have made it more searchable and added more end user value to it, and we think that's very positive," said Dallas police Deputy Chief Brian Harvey.

Those who support the sites say the goal is to allow residents the ability to take a new level of responsibility for safety in their neighborhoods on a daily basis and to enhance the dialogue between the community and local law enforcement.

But raw police incident reports can be problematic to the unsuspecting consumer, in part because they don't necessarily mean a true crime occurred.

For example, some incidents are initially classified as serious crimes only to be downgraded or discounted altogether after further investigation.

"Inherently there's nothing wrong with the data -- it's how that data gets interpreted," said Larry Hoover, director of the Police Research Center at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.

"There are caveats that go with the data."

The Web sites' operators say there's little they can do about errors in the data and note that it would be far riskier for them to get into the practice of altering the information.

"It's a garbage in, garbage out scenario," said Dan Elliott, the chief technology officer for Addison-based iThinQware Inc., which owns Crimere portslive.com.

Greg Whisenant, president and chief executive officer of another site, CrimeReports .com, agreed that raw data have limitations.

"Part of the challenge here is educating the public to understand the nature of crime data," he said.

Errors corrected

When errors are identified or offenses initially classified as one crime are changed to another, site operators say, their databases reflect those changes.

But basic searches on the sites appeared to reveal glitches.

Crimereportslive.com offers free searches by crime, location, date and time. The site plots incidents on a color-coded map and produces reports of crimes in specific areas over the previous 24 hours.

A query of robberies resulted in a list of eight incidents said to have occurred Nov. 25. But none of the eight were actually classified as robberies in the Dallas police incident report system.

Police classified the crimes as nonviolent thefts and burglaries.

Mr. Elliott said apparent problems like this one could be caused by a coding error on the part of police or human error on the part of the reporting party.

"There's a whole lot of humanity involved in the process, and that's why it's as accurate or inaccurate as it is," he said.

CrimeReports.com similarly plots crimes for free on color-coded maps and produces analytical reports, including graphs, regarding crime reported over certain periods in a variety of cities and towns across the country.

A query on CrimeReports .com of robberies in the downtown area matched up with robbery classifications on the original incident reports.

However, that site was unable to plot numerous incidents from the query on its Google Maps feature, even though the addresses were listed on the original Dallas police incident reports.

Avi Adelman is a longtime community activist in the Lower Greenville neighborhood who launched his own crime data site last year, DailyCrimeReport.com. He asks for an optional $15 fee but will be charging $25 annually for the service beginning next year, he said.

His site and others make money in various ways: through contracts with cities, police departments or other organizations, advertising and subscription services.

E-mail reports

Mr. Adelman's service primarily focuses on producing daily e-mail reports that list basic information taken straight from Dallas police incident reports over the previous 24 hours. Users who sign up for the alerts can craft them based on whatever area of the city they choose, including neighborhood associations, school districts or police beat numbers.

Mr. Adelman said his site provides people with a good sense of what happened in their neighborhood the day before.

But he bluntly admits that police incident reports can be problematic.

"It's the same junk that the police are putting out, and if you're that interested, you can follow up on it," he said.

Still, for him and others who support the sites, their value outweighs their potential for harm.

"Really, what we're doing here is opening a channel between the public and police department to help them communicate," said Mr. Whisenant of CrimeReports.com.

"This is a starting point for helping the public become more aware about crime and coordinating more directly with the police department to become the extension, the eyes and ears of the police department."

To see more of The Dallas Morning News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.dallasnews.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, The Dallas Morning News
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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