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Feb. 17, 2011, 1:30 p.m.

How public is public data? With Public Engines v. ReportSee, new access standards could emerge

A recently settled federal court case out in Utah may affect the way news organizations and citizens get access to crime data.

Public Engines, a company that publishes crime statistics for law enforcement agencies, sued ReportSee, which provides similar services, for misappropriating crime data ReportSee makes available on CrimeReports.com. In the settlement, ReportSee is barred from using data from Public Engines, as well as from asking for data from agencies that work with Public Engines.

At first glance, the companies seem virtually identical, right down to their similar mapping sites CrimeReport.com (Public Engines) and SpotCrime.com (ReportSee). The notable exception is that Public Engines contracts with police and sheriff departments for its data and provides tools to manage information. ReportSee, on the other hand, relies on publicly available feeds.

In the settlement between the two websites, a new question arises: Just what constitutes publicly available data? Is it raw statistics or refined numbers presented by a third party? Governments regularly farm out their data to companies that prepare and package records, but what stands out in this case is that Public Engines effectively laid claimed to the information provided to it by law enforcement. This could be problematic to news organizations, developers, and citizens looking to get their hands on data. While still open and available to the public, the information (and the timing of its release) could potentially be dictated by a private company.

“The value in this kind of crime data is distributing it as quickly as possible so the public can interact with it,” Colin Drane, the founder of SpotCrime, told me.

In its news release on the settlement, Public Engine notes that it works with more than 1,600 law enforcement agencies in the US. Greg Whisenant, CEO of Public Engines, said in the statement that the company is pleased with the outcome of the case, concluding, “The settlement ushers in a new era of transparency and accessibility for the general public. It clearly validates our perspective that law enforcement agencies should retain the right to manage and control the data they decide to share.”

Naturally, Drane sees things differently. “I just don’t think people recognize that the data is being, essentially, privatized,” he said.

That may be a slight exaggeration, evidenced by the fact that SpotCrime is still operating. Instead of signing contracts with law enforcement agencies, SpotCrime requests data that is available for free and runs ads on its map pages. The company also partners with local media to run crime maps on news sites.

Through Drane sought to create a business through data mapping, his methods are largely similar to those of news organizations, relying on open data and free mapping tools. And just like news organizations, Drane finds that the hardest part of the job can be negotiating to get records.

“The technology has been here for years, but the willingness to use it is just starting for many cities,” Drane said.

The open data movement has certainly exploded in recent years, from property and tax records at the municipal level all the way up to Data.gov. As a result, news organizations are not only doing data-backed reporting, but also building online features and news apps. And news organizations are not alone, as developers and entrepreneurs like Drane are mining open datasets to try to create tools and fill information needs within communities.

I asked David Ardia of the Citizen Media Law Project whether this case could hinder development of more data products or have broader ramifications for journalists and citizens. The short answer is no, he said, since no ruling was issued. But Public Engines could be emboldened to take action against competitors, Ardia noted — and, as a result, developers looking to do something similar to what Drane has done may think twice about using public data.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Ardia said. “There are tremendous amounts of money to be made in government information and data.”

In this case, Public Engines saw crime data as a proprietary product — and Dane’s company as infringing on their contract. It also claimed misappropriation of the hot news doctrine, arguing that it gathers and publishes information in a timely manner as part of its business. (An interesting link Ardia points out: On its FAQ page, CrimeReports.com says it does not make crime data downloadable “to the general public for financial and legal reasons.”)

Ardia said the larger question is twofold: first, whether government agencies will let third parties exert control over public data, and, second, who can access that data. As more local and state departments use outside companies to process records, tax dollars that go towards managing data are essentially paid to limit access to the public. Drane and his company were barred from using or asking to use public crime data in certain cities: If crime data is the property of a third party, the police department could either direct people to CrimeReports.com or, Ardia worries, say that it’s not free to make the information available to others.

“This is a problematic trend as governments adapt to and adopt these technologies that improve their use and analysis of information,” Ardia said.

Obviously all of this runs counter to established practice for public records and data in journalism, and Ardia said that it’s likely the issue won’t be settled until a case similar to Public Engines v. ReportSee makes its way to the courts. (We should have a better view of how the hot news doctrine holds up overall, though, after an appeals court rules on the FlyOnTheWall case.) But a better option could be to adapt current open records laws to reflect changes in how data is stored, processed, and accessed, Ardia said. Businesses and developers should be able to build products on a layer of public data, he said, but not exclusively — or at the expense of greater access for the broader public.

“We don’t have to wait for the courts to resolve this. Part of this can be addressed through changes in open records laws,” Ardia said. “Put the onus on agencies to make this data available when they sign agreements with third parties.”

POSTED     Feb. 17, 2011, 1:30 p.m.
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