Open Cities – the Counter Reaction

The Washington Monthly has an interesting piece 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.

This is a crosspost from my Open Cities Blog at

1 thought on “Open Cities – the Counter Reaction

  1. Veronica

    Is this a function of gov't 1.0 vs. 2.0 or a function of the culture of policing and security services, where the long-standing (and often important) instinct is to keep things close to your chest, whether they need to be or not? Being a security-geek rather than an open-source geek, that would be my first explanation – and I think these questions of what to share & how to share information in security are particularly interesting. Not an example of sharing with the public, but in Canada, information sharing with the USA got whole lot more centralized post-Arar & O'Connor Report, and one might argue that that's a good thing. Critical infrastructure is maybe a better example of where the open-source instinct to share might be countered by a legitimate instinct to keep details out of the public eye – or at least hard to find (there was a dissertation a few years back in the US that got classified – if I remember the story correctly – because it amalgamated too much useful open-source information into a scary-to-the-security-folk whole.)

Comments are closed.