A “Virtual Neighborhood Watch”

The L.A.Times’s new interactive crime map

One of the more lively debates at last month’s Block by Block Community News Summit concerned publications’ treatment of crime data and police blotters. Some site editors saw this kind of content as problematic, but all agreed that it was a big draw for site traffic.

Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian in upstate New York, said that he regularly reprints the local police blotter on his site. To the objection that this might invade the privacy of those who were arrested—underage kids who got arrested for drinking, for instance—Owens said he sees it as a transparency issue, and that his readers are taxpayers who have the right to know what the local police is doing.

West Seattle Blog’s editor Tracy Record said that she would publish crimes, but not the names of people arrested until they were charged. Polly Kreisman, publisher of TheLoop in Westchester County, N.Y., said that she would not go so far as to publish mugshots, as some other local sites do, but that she also publishes the police blotter, with names, because it consistently gets the most traffic of any part of her site. (Kreisman encourages that traffic by highlighting a humorous “crime of the week,” such as a rooster being illegally kept as a pet.)

Others I spoke to privately felt reluctant to highlight crime on their sites because they did not want to draw that negative attention to the neighborhoods they were writing about; that it was tempting to be a cheerleader for your neighborhood in order to make your site a success. This temptation spoke to the tension that Susan Mernit of the Oakland Local had identified earlier in that panel discussion—the distinction between engaging with a community audience and being an advocacy group for that community.

With that in mind, it was interesting to see The Los Angeles Times trumpeting the launch of a new, very thorough, and very interactive crime map on its website last Thursday, Crime L.A. The Times has been experimenting a lot with data-heavy interactive features recently, charting and mapping everything from teachers’ assessment scores to—far less controversiallylocal farmers’ markets. The crime map is an offshoot of a larger web project, Mapping L.A., a resource for readers to compare demographic info, crime, and schools in each of the city’s neighborhoods.

Crime L.A. categorizes and maps the city’s crimes, using data from the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department. The crimes are mainly divided into “violent crime” and “property crime,” and when users click on a particular neighborhood, they can instantly see whether there are any “alerts” out or whether crime is at “typical levels.” The crimes listed do not have names of perpetrators attached, just the what and where: here’s an example.

In a podcast, data team editor Megan Garvey says that it took her and her colleagues about two years to obtain and compile the data; then they had to figure out how to present it in a way that would be “journalistically worth doing,” that would report and interpret the data rather than just dumping it all together on a map. So, for instance, long timelines were important, so that readers could see patterns over time (something that you can’t get from a weekly police blotter). Readers want to see what’s typical for their neighborhoods and neighborhoods like theirs, and what’s not, and what might be changing. Garvey continues:

It’s an acknowledgement that, even in the heyday of The L.A. Times, when the newsroom was much larger, we didn’t really cover burglaries at the local level. But that’s something that people really care about, they care about whether their car will be broken into, whether their home will be broken into, whether they’re in physical danger.

Garvey also says she hopes the map will draw readers in, making the page a destination for more tips, information and conversation. To that end, they will soon build up the page to include discussion forums and tip lines.

People are knowledgeable about where they live. They have neighborhood watches, they have neighborhood homeowners’ associations, and we really hope that people who are already really plugged into their community will share what they know with The L.A. Times readers, so that you create this central place where everyone can come—I think of it as a sort of virtual neighborhood watch.

For privacy reasons, and reasons of access, probably, the crime reports don’t have names or mugshots, and those omissions may diminish the traffic that would result from more voyeuristic police-blotter-style updates. As a resource, though, this kind of project is the best kind of online feature that a news site can provide—a public service, online community builder, and a site traffic booster in one. That is, if people participate. Right now, it is just a data dump of incident reports, without providing much context. For it to have real journalistic value, some editorial involvement is necessary: reporters seeing the patterns in the data and following up on them to find stories in the numbers, for instance, or a filter for verifying and publishing the tips, photos and personal accounts that readers submit to supplement the raw data that’s up there now. Crime L.A. has a lot of potential; let’s see what people do with it.

*[Update: This post previously indicated that The Batavian was a Chicago-based site; it is located in New York. The error has been corrected.]

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner