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:
- The Chicago Police Department has a long, proud, legitimate history as a leader in the publication of crime data going back to the early 1990s
- Adrian Holovaty based his ground-breaking mashup, Chicago Crime, on the police department’s CLEARpath system, which was already a decade old by the time Chicago Crime was published in 2005
- When I helped start the website called EveryBlock, I helped find and publish crime data in more than a dozen cities. It was a part of my life’s work, and I met (and continue to work with) dozens of people who worked on making crime data more available and more useful
- The City of Chicago has one of the largest caches of municipal crime data available. It forms the corpus of one of the most well-used and most-cited crime datasets anywhere
- In 2011, reporters from the Chicago Sun-Times won a Pulitzer Prize based, in part, on the analysis of crime data. It’s my understanding, btw, that the data they used was scraped from EveryBlock (more history)
- The Chicago Tribune has one of the best crime data lookup tools available. It is, of course, based on official police data. Their corporate cousin, the Los Angeles Times, has always had interesting approaches and solid data reporting
- The civic tech community in Chicago has produced lots of great apps (CrimeAround.us is a good example) and thinking (Daniel K. Hertz is pretty boss on this front) and is often cited as an example of collaboration with local governments to improve the information delivered to residents. I have played some role in that, professionally and personally
- At OpenGovChicago, we’ve pondered the question of whether we’re doing enough. See meetup agendas like “Thoughtful Critiques of the Open Government Movement” and “Open Data≠Open Government“
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.