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Homicide Data for Sale -- What Do You Think?

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How much is homicide data worth to your news organization? Better question yet, how much is homicide data worth to your community?

Homicide Watch thinks a news room might be willing to pay $350. The bigger question is how could this information be used by your community to improve itself?

Homicide Watch says: "If we are to understand violent crime in our community, the losses of every family, in every neighborhood must be recognized. And the outcome of every trial -- be it a conviction or an acquittal -- must be recorded."

The newsroom just posted a new perk on its Kickstarter project whose goal is to raise $40,000 in cash to keep Homicide Watch DC open.

Back in June, we published a six-month review of homicides in 2012: Decreases in Gun, Domestic Violence, at Forefront of 6-month Homicide Decline.

The story, which included a map and summation of half a year's stats, took us about four hours to complete. We never had to file a FOIA. We just asked questions and our database started pouring out answers.
  • How many murders have happened this year, compared to this time last year?
  • Who were the youngest and oldest victims?
  • How many cases have at least one suspect under arrest?
  • What is the racial and gender makeup of victims (and suspects)?
  • Where did most homicides happen?

These are questions every news organization should be able to answer. We collect this information as part of our reporting process and store it in our custom-built database. Now you can use the same data.

For every victim and suspect, we collect a name, age, race and gender. For victims, we also record a date of death, homicide method (shooting, stabbing, etc), place of death (hospital or at the scene) and incident location. For suspects, we record arrest dates and case status.
If you work for a news organization, think about how long it would take to gather all of this information.

We'll export the data at your request, so you can ask in September (when this campaign ends) or in January (if you want two calendar years) or any time later.

All this for a measly $350?

In general, I like this idea but it does raise some questions. The big resistance by government to opening data for a long while was that data was a potential revenue source. Another potential roadblock was the desire to keep some data secret. Politicians might want to control access to crime data because it might reveal something unsavory about its services or policing style.

Chris Amico, CTO of Homicide Watch, said they've not gotten any blow back from private industry or government about the work they've been doing.

Right now, we're the only ones using this data. We really haven't gotten any pushback. DC government has good open data policies, and things like data.dc.gov and the DC courts website are great. The problem we find, as with a lot of public data, is that it's scattered and often hard to use.

Our data is all gathered from our reporting, mostly from sources that are technically public but fragmented, incomplete or otherwise hard to capture. For example, we record arrest dates for every suspect arrested on a homicide case we cover. You could get that from the police department, but it would likely take one or more FOIAs and several months of waiting. You'd likely also have to know which suspects to ask about in the first place, which is difficult when you don't have a complete list of homicides and victims you're tracking. That's why we try so hard not to lose any information.

Homicide Watch has taken on a challenging job weaving together bits and pieces of data that tell important aspects of the story.

We don't make any distinction between what some news outlets call the cops beat and the courts beat. We get raw information from a wide variety of sources. We verify all of it, and we create context and understanding by putting the pieces together.

With this offer, Homicide Watch is moving newsrooms one step closer to the idea of being specialized data weavers in their communities, an idea advanced by Esther Dyson in a recent post on The Project-Syndicate.

The Quantified Community, Dyson writes, is a place where "communities [measure the state], health, and activities of their people and institutions, thereby improving them."

This concept is a morph of the Quantified Self movement in which, Dyson says:

... Individuals equipped with the tools (monitoring devices and software) needed to measure their own health and behavior (and, by doing so, to improve them). This movement is not quite sweeping the world, but it is making a difference. So-called Quantified Selfers are monitoring their blood pressure, sleep cycles, and body mass. At least some of them are using that information to improve their health and live more productively."

Dyson sees the potential for a similar movement among communities, and she sees the logical holders of the keys to this new domain of continual improvement as being newsrooms. This would make data crunching an important source of revenue for newsrooms.

Dyson writes:

Indeed, I believe that local newspapers will often find that the Quantified Community offers them the business model that they need at a time when many advertisers are bypassing them for social marketing and running their own Web sites. Despite the pending demise of print journalism, local papers still generally reach more local citizens than any other single institution. They need a way to remain relevant; this could be it.

In addition to selling advertising around the data, local newspapers could charge institutions for specific data analyses, benchmarking studies, and the like. The more enterprising of them could license their analytical software to other newspapers that follow their lead in other communities.

Any local news organizations could collect and manage the data (using its own people and perhaps some of the third-party resources that I mentioned) and provide a central hub to manage and cross-reference the data. For example, which neighborhoods have the healthiest people? Which employers are hiring, and which are shedding workers? How does absenteeism correlate with health -- and with health-club membership?

What do you think? Should your community's newsroom support HomicideWatch and try out this perk? Should community newsrooms get into the data crunching business? Let me know.