Data choice may be costly

By Samuel Charles

In Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s never-ending quest for open government and transparency, the city of Chicago has released records detailing every crime reported to the Chicago Police Department from January 2001 through the first week of September 2011. The list will be updated frequently to include more crimes as they occur.

While this may be an investigative reporter’s dream, there are many other potential consequences of the decision, both good and bad.

On one hand, this is another step taken toward a more open and trustworthy government, meaning the public may now know a lot more than they previously did.

For example, from simply downloading the data set provided by the city, someone can learn that, in 2009, there were more than 391,000 crimes reported to the CPD. The next year, though, there were 369,000 and change.

The data is divided and categorized in several ways; by date, the block on which it occurred, the type of offense recorded, the police beat as well as the ward.

This is the kind of information that typically requires a Freedom of Information Act request.

As much of a stretch as it may seem, though, this is the kind of decision that could potentially lead to more gentrification in an already rapidly changing cityscape.

With more available information for people to use in their own independent research, communities could potentially see changes to their makeup.

People will no longer have to rely on word-of-mouth to figure out which neighborhoods and communities are legitimately safest. For the record, the district that encompasses the Edgewater community saw the fewest crimes in 2010.

But for those who don’t plan on uprooting themselves, this data can help them become more engaged and involved residents because the information also includes whether or not an arrest was made.

The CPD and those who planned the release of this information may have had a stroke of genius without even realizing it when they made the data goldmine public. Even though some absolutely critical pieces of knowledge are contained, fewer than 4,000 people have viewed the spreadsheet on the city’s website.

So, at least for the time being, the city can have its cake and eat it too. They’re being transparent without public pressure, and better yet, the public is too uninformed to access the data that every citizen of the city should be aware of.

It’s win-win.