David Eaves
by David Eaves
Tue Jul 21st 2009 at 6:27am UTC

Open City Challenges – The Counter Reaction

Interesting piece over at Washington Monthly about how some bureaucracies are having a reactionary (but albeit unsurprising) reaction to open data initiatives. The article focuses on how the data used by one application, Stumble Safely “helps you find the best bars and a safe path to stumble home on” by mashing together DC Crime Data, DC Road Polygons, DC Liquor Licenses, DC Water, DC Parks, and DC Metro Stations.

However, arming citizens with precise knowledge doesn’t appear to make one group of people happy: The Washington, D.C. police department. As the article notes:

But a funny thing has happened since Eric Gundersen launched his application: Stumble Safely has become less useful, rather than more so. When you click on the gray and red crime-indicating dots that have appeared on the map in the past few months, you don’t get much information about what exactly happened—all you get is a terse, one-word description of the category of the incident (“assault,” or “theft”) and a time, with no details of whether it was a shootout or just a couple of kids punching each other in an alley.

This isn’t Gundersen’s fault—it’s the cops’. Because while Kundra and the open-data community were fans of opening up the city’s books, it turned out that the Metropolitan Police Department was not. Earlier this year, as apps like Stumble Safely grew in number and quality, the police stopped releasing the detailed incident reports—investigating officers’ write-ups of what happened—into the city’s data feed. The official reason for the change is concern over victims’ and suspects’ privacy. But considering that before the clampdown the reports were already being released with names and addresses redacted, it’s hard to believe that’s the real one. More likely, the idea of information traveling more or less unedited from cops’ keyboards to citizens’ computer screens made the brass skittish, and the department reacted the way bureaucracies usually do: it made public information harder to get. The imperatives of Government 2.0 were thwarted by the instincts of Government 1.0.

This is just one in a long list of ways that old-style government (1.0) is reacting against technology. The end result sadly however is that the action taken by the police doesn’t reduce crime, it just reduces the public’s confidence in the police force. This is just a small example of the next big debate that will take place at all levels of government: Will your government try to control information and services or will it develop trust by being both accountable and open to others building on its work? You can’t have it both ways and I suspect citizens – particularly creatives – are going to strongly prefer the latter.

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3 Responses to “Open City Challenges – The Counter Reaction”

  1. Michael Wells Says:

    Openness in government is tough. There’s not only the bureaucratic instinct for control Eaves writes about, but the constant harassment from watchdogs on the left and the right, the press and elected officials as well as the threat of lawsuits. The need to look over your shoulder is much worse than most private blogs have to contend with.

    That said, openness needs to be the wave of the future, if only because the information is going to get out anyway through the channels mentioned above. And in an increasingly interconnected world, the information will be needed by both government and citizens for them to operate effectively.

    Getting from Government 1.0 to 2.0 is going to be much more complicated than simply opening records.

  2. Kim Feraday Says:

    I don’t think that the police reaction is one against technology — they’re simply trying to control information. And that’s not new that’s probably as old as government itself (and big corporations etc.). Those who control the information want to control access because it allows them to control the agenda much more easily. That’s why we’ve needed access to information laws. Rather than focus on the technology maybe the lens should be turned back to laws that will provide an adequate framework for making information available no matter how it is made available (technology, paper etc.).

    Now to play devil’s advocate for a second. If I were police I wouldn’t want information made available through an application that supports people getting drunk and then shows them (potentially) how they can avoid areas that have the heaviest police presence (due to crime). It’s far from a great use of public information. In fact it may be working against the public interest. Maybe advocates for information access should put forward better use cases than this if they want government support.

  3. Open Cities – the Counter Reaction | eaves.ca Says:

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