Breaking Down the Homan Square Story from an Open Data History Perspective

Yesterday morning one of the most respected publications in the world, The Guardian, dropped a story bomb on Chicago: The disappeared: Chicago police detain Americans at abuse-laden ‘black site’.

As someone who has worked in the open data movement for a while, who lives and works in Chicago, this one hurts. Let’s break it down:

In short, Chicago crime data has played a significant role in the history of the modern open data movement. The idea that the Homan Square facility, at the corner of Homan and Fillmore, is a place where police are “keeping arrestees out of official booking databases” certainly is not a shining star in this history.

There may be perfectly reasonable and accurate counterpoints to this story. Hell, it may end up being completely overblown. The Chicago Police Department has already responded in the Sun-Times: “Marty Maloney, a spokesman for the police department, said interviews are handled no differently at Homan Square than at other police facilities, such as the department’s 22 districts or its three detective headquarters.”

In fact, Frank Main— a universally respected reporter and one of the people who won the Pulitzer, points out:

But the existence of the building isn’t being kept under wraps by the police: The public is able to recover inventoried property from the evidence unit and news conferences are regularly held at Homan Square when the department shows off seized drugs.

The history of crime data in Chicago that I outlined above is real. No news story can change those decades of great work by people inside and outside of government. I am proud to toil with them, proud to call them my friends.

No, what hurts more than the facts of this particular blockbuster story is the gnawing feeling that my colleague Aaron Swartz was right: transparency is bunk and reporting is where it’s at. Here’s what he wrote six years ago:

The way a typical US transparency project works is pretty simple. You find a government database, work hard to get or parse a copy, and then put it online with some nice visualizations.

The problem is that reality doesn’t live in the databases. Instead, the databases that are made available, even if grudgingly, form a kind of official cover story, a veil of lies over the real workings of government.

It’s easy, on a day like this, to see the bunk.

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