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Dallas Morning News partners with local government group to gather clean, universal crime data

A grant from Knight’s Prototype Fund will pay for a council of North Texas governments to render crime data from dozens of sources into a format journalists and the public can use.

dallasmap

It’s not unusual that The Dallas Morning News is trying to increase its data journalism efforts by launching a crime map. The twist is that they’re partnering with a governmental group to do it.

Through funding from the Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund — which also announced seven other new grantees this morning — the Morning News and the North Central Texas Council of Governments will build a standalone community crime site that covers five counties in the paper’s readership area. The plan is for the site to host automated feeds featuring daily incident data plotted on a map, along with crime alerts for users.

“We’re going to be able to use this to spot trends and to find stories that go beyond the big crime”

Knight’s prototype fund offers a small investment — $50,000 or less — to experimental projects in the areas of media and community information; the funding will go to NCTCOG, which maintains the law enforcement data. The Morning News will build the site as an open source project, which could potentially make it replicable by other newspapers.

“In essence, we’re the experts at communicating to the public, and they’re the experts at gathering police data,” said Daniel Lathrop, the news applications editor for the Morning News. “What we’re doing is marrying that together.”

Crime maps are an old standby in news app development, and in most cases the heaviest lifting is the procuring, cleaning, and compiling of data from law enforcement agencies. The Morning News is bypassing that by going directly to the source. NCTCOG is responsible for sharing and maintaining data between different jurisdictions through its Law Enforcement Analysis Portal.

Morning News VP and managing editor George Rodrigue said he doesn’t think partnering with the group represents a conflict of interest, saying it’s no different than the way reporters work with other agencies to obtain usable public data. “If we can give them the news in an accessible, easy-to-understand, convenient, fast form, I think they’ll appreciate that,” he said. The presentation and localization of the data by neighborhood will add value, he said: “I think we need to do more things like this. Clearly just putting words in a newspaper is not going to be enough any more.”

Randy Hunt, program manager for the Law Enforcement Analysis Portal, said its primary job is to facilitate information sharing between police and sheriffs offices within the state. In order for agencies to work together, they need the same data — dispatcher records, jail records, incident reports and more — in universal formats, Hunt said. Working with the Morning News will create a public-facing, community-friendly way to access public safety data, he said.

What the council of governments does, Lathrop said, is help streamline the data acquisition process. The Morning News is able to use stats from the city of Dallas regularly because the data is available in a parseable XML feed, he said. But that’s far from universal among the dozens of other area law enforcement agencies, which makes pulling together and then maintaining incident records across five counties very difficult. And even if that data was readily available, there would likely be interoperability issues — the basic reporting codes for crimes like assault with a deadly weapon can differ across jurisdictions, he said.

Lathrop said he’s excited to build an app that has the potential to find use at different papers around the country. “We’re going to be able to use this to spot trends and to find stories that go beyond the big crime,” he said.

                                   
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