Sep. 2, 2008 at 8:00 AM ET
"See who your neighbors are," says the breathless e-mail from FelonSpy.com, promising to expose “all the people close to your home that have been convicted of ANY felonies.”
Click on the link and enter your address, and you’ll see a highly detailed Google map with red pins/balloons on it, each containing an offender’s name, age and felony offense.
If you haven’t seen an e-mail like this already, you will soon.
Unfortunately for the criminally curious, FelonSpy.com is a hoax. The realistic-looking arrest data plotted on it is randomly generated, says the site author, who spoke with msnbc.com on the condition of anonymity. But the persistence of the gag, which was dispelled by hoax-busting Web site Snopes.com in February, speaks to how curious American are about their neighbors and about neighborhood crime. And while FelonySpy.com isn't real, a host of new Web sites offering maps with just slightly less detailed crime data are trying to capitalize on our seemingly endless appetite for the old-fashioned police blotter.
The Internet is uniquely qualified to offer users such intensely local news. Reading through pages and pages of police reports listed on newspaper pages was a challenge; entering your home address into a form and seeing a map of recent police events near your home is easy -- and just about irresistible.
Chicago resident and journalist Adrian Holovaty started a site called ChicagoCrime.org in 2005 after persuading city police to share crime data with him. After receiving a grant from the Knight Foundation, he expanded the service to several other major U.S. cities and widened the data stream to include other municipal events, like permit applications. His project is now called Everyblock.com, and covers nine of the largest U.S. cities, including New York, Washington D.C., and Seattle.
"We spend a lot of time trying to convince local governments to open up data that citizens might be interested in," Holovaty said. "If you live in an urban area, so much is happening around you, and there are so many media outlets and blogs and government Web sites with bits of news, it's hard to keep track of."
Despite all those news outlets, only the most dramatic crimes ever make news – even though a broken car window down the block is probably more interesting than a murder which takes place across the city. Everyblock.com tries to plug that information gap.
Holovaty said he will soon offer the software he's developed for free to municipalities around the country.
"It's an experiment in journalism," he said.
Crimereports.com, based in Utah, uses a different model. The firm charges local police departments $99-$199 per month to publish their data on the CrimeReports' Web site. So, far, says founder Greg Whisenant, 260 cities have signed up since the service launched in May of 2007.
"I like the idea of putting more knowledge and more information into the hands of people," he said. "The chief complaint from police is that the public is not engaged. Well, this gets the public engaged."
Some states, such as Utah, have signed up with CrimeReports and given their municipalities licenses to use the service.
"I think CrimeReports is the future," said Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff. "People are really excited about it here." He says about half of Utah cities are already up and running on the site.
CrimeReports also lets visitors register to receive e-mails every time there's an incident near their home. About 20,000 users have registered, Whisenant said.
Data not detailed
Be warned: Voyeurs who’ve seen the fake details offered in the FelonySpy.com hoax might be disappointed when logging in to Everyblock.com or CrimeReports.com. The crime-mapping services should not be confused with paid criminal background checks on individuals. Instead, the sites chiefly offer aggregated data for small geographic areas. In nearly all cities that are publishing crime information online, the crime data is severely limited by police. Exact addresses are omitted, so crimes are only plotted to the block level.
In most cases, names are omitted too, and there's no narrative or description of crime events. In fact, users who pull up their street will really only see a bunch of icons or pushpins signifying types of crimes -- commonly robberies, burglaries or assaults -- that occurred nearby. All the sites say they are trying to persuade police agencies to supply more specific data.
Still, even limited data is of use to residents, says Colin Drane, a Baltimore resident who founded SpotCrime.com, which operates now in 150 cities.
"It creates accountability for the powers that be," he said. Recently, he had a GPS gadget stolen from his car in front of his home, and after filing a police report, felt underwhelmed by the response. "But if it's at least a data point on a map, you can feel you did something, alerted your neighbors."
SpotCrime doesn't charge police departments to publish their data; instead Drane sells advertisements on his site. He also has a new site, UCrime.com, which offers similar service for college campuses around the country.
'Subject to misinterpretation'
Police departments have used crime-mapping software internally for some time, but the sudden proliferation of public-facing crime mapping tools raises interesting questions. Databases have the same seductive quality as photographs, in that people tend to see them as infallibly accurate. In fact, both pictures and databases can lie, or at least be subject to interpretation. A police department that does a poor job feeding data into the system might appear safer than a nearby department that aggressively publishes incidents, for example. And a string of car thefts by one criminal could suddenly make one block stand out on a map of pushpins. That could be devastating to a homeowner who's just put their place on the market.
"Crime data is subject to misinterpretation. That is a challenge. But this is a starting point," Whisenant said, adding that he thinks the good far outweighs the bad. "The fact that it might be misconstrued doesn't justify not sharing it. We are giving the public the ability to really be informed."
Holovaty said an important debate has yet to take place about increased release of police data and other local information. In London, for example, some have complained that block-by-block publication of police reports will reinforce stereotypes about bad neighborhoods. But ultimately, he said, crime data belongs to the public.
"Every database is flawed, but having the data is better than not having the data," he said.
There are other hazards which have emerged in the race to map crime data, says Holovaty. When municipalities turn to for-profit companies to publish public information, there's a risk that the data will no longer be free to citizens. He says some towns' relationship with CrimeReports is exclusive, and those towns refuse to share their crime data with his Everyblock project. SpotCrime's Drane had the same complaint.
"I'm concerned about anything that creates a monopoly on this data," Drane said.
Whisenant said his firm doesn't sign exclusive contracts with municipalities, but some do find it inefficient to work with more than one vendor for crime mapping services.
Drane said he hopes there will be many "positive unintended consequences" to publication of the crime data. Citizens might provide additional, voluntary number-crunching and help police pick out patterns, for example. At a bare minimum, residents can get immediate word of a crime spree in their neighborhood and take prompt action -- the same way homeowners now get warning that a bad weather is on the way.
"We want to be the AccuWeather of crime," Drane said, referring to the popular weather forecasting site.