Fighting Crime with Open Data Journalism

It’s not every day that a media house joins forces with a university to fight crime. So a recent collaborative open journalism project in Trinidad and Tobago might strike you as a bit unusual.

Guardian Media Limited (GML) and The University of the West Indies (UWI) campus in St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago are working on a data journalism project to stem the tide of serious crime in the country.

Called Bullet Points, the app tracks and visualises the country’s murder data in real time, allowing desktop and mobile users to immediately see the wider context in which individual murders occurred.

The underlying data set, which is being provided by GML and hosted by UWI at data.tt, includes victims’ name, age and sex; the date, location and nature of the killing; and, perhaps most interestingly, the legal status of the case.

Although the app is not being actively promoted at this time, anyone can now use the app here: http://tinyurl.com/bulletpoints

(I’m still verifying and uploading data for the last four months.)

Data Journalism For The Greater Good

“From the outset, I saw this collaborative data journalism venture as a noble kind of project, the type of thing that really contributes to the greater good,” said Kyle de Freitas, an assistant lecturer at the UWI Faculty of Science and Agriculture, Department of Computing and Information Technology.

“But as an educator, I soon started to realise that the app also makes for a great teaching tool. I think a crime visualisation tool is the perfect way for Comp Sci students to literally see the potential for applied data management to create a positive social impact.”

De Freitas, who is also a PhD student in Data Mining, has volunteered to develop the app on his own time. Through contributors like de Freitas, the regional university is continuing to provide technical support, while GML is providing verified data and lending journalistic expertise.

Coming Soon To A Newsroom Near You

Although the app is open to the public, only a closed group of reporters is able to contribute at this time. Making the Bullet Points app open to a wider pool of contributors is one of the project’s top development objectives. 

A wider group of data scientists, including journalists and developers, will eventually be eligible to contribute to the project, either by verifying datasets submitted by other journalists or by submitting datasets themselves.

Contributors will be able to update the app’s underlying database with single entries in real-time or with contiguous larger historical data sets (by month).

Crime App Just The Beginning

For now, the app does only visualisations of data; it doesn’t crunch the data to generate reports. De Freitas and I are working to develop the app’s core functionality and add new features. For me, accurate automated reporting is a major development horizon.

Producing quality journalism is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. As a New Media Editor, I spend a lot of time trying to engineer technology-driven approaches to reporting that increase efficiency without compromising quality. This app will do exactly that.

I’m old enough to remember when data journalism meant making the long walk from the newsroom to the library to pore through between tall, dusty stacks of old newspapers. Today, some newsrooms have digital libraries but most haven’t invested in the technology to extract contiguous data points from their own libraries.

I think most newsrooms–certainly most crime and court reporters–would appreciate a tool that, at the touch of a button, is able to crunch large and complex datasets and reliably yield accurate and meaningful insights about the incidence of crime.

Of course, some training and sensitisation are needed to develop journalists’ proficiency in basic and advanced techniques of interrogating data to discover significant stories.

And we’re still trying to figure out how we’ll apply basic Open Data standards and protocols to govern which data are allowed into the app and how they are uploaded.

But I honestly think we’re off to a good start.

If you’re interested in contributing to the project, contact us at newmedia.editor@guardian.co.tt

Footer: Just a side note. This collaboration between UWI and GML started in April 2013, when the UWI Department of Computing and Information Technology invited the Guardian to participate in the Caribbean Open Data Conference, a regional technology meet-up and code sprint focused on open data, software innovation, and technology trends.  

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