Madison residents can now view a daily interactive map showing crime in the city. The Madison Police Department hopes this web feature will increase safety and help in forecasting crime.
Similar to websites such as MapQuest, browsers can zoom in and out of neighborhoods, sort by date and crime, and click on locations for more information, including mugshot photos of sex offenders. The site can also be used to instantly generate pie graphs and other charts showing trends.
The map, at CrimeReports.com, has been up since December, but police have not made it known while they sorted out the kinds and extent of information offered. The department hopes to formally announce the site next week, along with a revamped website at ci.madison.wi.us/police.
One concern has been privacy, even though all the posted information is public. Only block numbers, not specific addresses, are listed on "pop-ups." Other than sex offenders, no names are given. Anyone who wants more information can take down the case number that appears and request public records; sex offenders' listings link to more detailed case reports at the website for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. You can also sign up to be alerted by e-mail when crime occurs nearby.
Planning has been underway for a year. Police says the impetus for the program was residents' demand.
"They have expressed loudly the desire to see basic patterns relating to crime issues in the city of Madison," says Capt. Carl Gloede, who oversees the department's records, information management and technology. "And rightly so."
While some police departments build their own mapping websites, Madison chose to go with CrimeReports, a private company based in Salt Lake City, because of its relatively low cost: for Madison, around $130 a month. Other client police departments include those in Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, East Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
Personal information is removed from incident reports before they're passed along to CrimeReports at 3 a.m. nightly. The company's software then sorts them into 15 categories and 21 subcategories. The updated map is usually online within a half hour.
But not every department chooses to list all categories. An early fear was that the Madison public would be alarmed at the number of daily incident reports -- around 500 on a slow day. Many incidents are not crimes, are relatively unimportant or false alarms.
"Initially we played around," says Gloede. "We put in a whole bunch of call types. There are literally over a 100 call types: information-type calls, noise, burglary, homicides, everything. We put a whole bunch on there to see what the map would look like. And there were so many you couldn't see the map! So we said, okay, that's going to freak everybody out. 'We have to pack! Let's move!' You know?"
The emphasis in creating the final map site was on providing information that would be meaningful. Even so, Gloede worries the website's data will give a false impression that crime has increased.
"The jump is not that we've all of a sudden had a huge increase in crime in Madison, but that we've created some efficiencies in how we capture data, how we capture all the things we're doing," he says.
It's not just curious residents who will make use of this new technology. The department will maintain a more extensive mirror program for internal use, available to officers at their daily briefings and even in their squad cars.
The mapped data will also be studied by four department analysts. "This opens the door to all sorts of other opportunities," says Gloede, comparing it to a crystal ball. "They're creating a picture of why things are happening, when they happen, if there's a correlation, and come up with a forecast of predictors. Will there be a crime at this place at this time? Can we do something, then? High visibility? More surveillance? Something to deter and catch the criminals."
Only incidents reported to the Madison Police Department are featured. Gloede hopes that eventually all area law enforcement agencies will take part.
When and if a new 911 computer-aided dispatch system is installed, an internal real-time capability could be added, allowing dispatchers to see moving dots representing police and fire vehicles in transit. Even Gloede is amazed at the possibilities of the new system.
"That's kind of futuristic," he says. "Soon we'll have hovering vehicles."