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Using Data to Transform Policing in New Orleans

Last week, New Orleans held an event to preview three datasets on policing they plan to open to the general public. This event was part of the City's contributions to the Police Data Initiative, launched in response to recommendations from the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Fifteen year old Operation Spark student Grace Clark helps New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison write his first line of code: nopd.showRecords(1000) (Photo credit: Tyler Gamble/New Orleans Police Department)

The power of data to transform our society for the better is incredible.  One of the areas to use data for immediate impact is in policing. Recently, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing provided recommendations on how to best use the power of data to improve policing, including better use of data and technology to build community trust and reduce inappropriate interactions with residents.

On May 21, the President announced the launch of the Police Data Initiative, as a follow-up to this Task Force. Under this program, 24 jurisdictions nationwide have committed to open up datasets about policing, and to participate in a peer-learning network to share data innovations across law enforcement agencies. One of these jurisdictions is the City of New Orleans.

Last week, New Orleans held an event to preview three datasets on policing they plan to open to the general public (use of force, 911 calls for service with arrival times included, and field interview cards).  At the event, city officials worked with a group of young coders to build apps powered by this newly unlocked data.

Highlights of the event? Well, New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison writing his first line of code was a big one! In addition, Chief Harrison and City of New Orleans Chief Information Officer Lamar Gardere explored new ways that policing datasets might be used to build community trust in New Orleans, and the young coders had a chance to see first-hand how their work could impact policing in their neighborhoods.

We love this approach of pre-releasing data with a trusted group of young coders and their mentors for several reasons:

  1. A data preview event supercharges the trust-building process. Constructive dialogue about the origin and content of datasets underlies good data science, and leads to better understanding about the potential uses for the data.
  2. By vetting the usefulness of a dataset with a trusted group of community stakeholders, the entity that manages the dataset receives valuable feedback that enables that entity to improve data quality and documentation before final release to the public. Additionally, the preview process builds internal comfort with the idea of opening data proactively, rather than only by request.
  3. Hosting an event is a “forcing function” that catalyzes the release of data sets. New Orleans CIO Lamar Gardere commented that the impending deadline for data release was itself a motivator to improve data quality and completeness.
  4. Data science is a team sport. A data pre-release event provides a venue for young coders to get real-world experience with coding and data science that helps prep them for the workforce. It provides a way for tech mentors (as potential future employers) get to know the local talent in the tech pipeline. And it provides motivation and inspiration to civil servants, who have a chance to absorb the impact their work has on the public.

In just three days, the teams of coders at the New Orleans event were able to prototype several apps, underscoring the value of the new datasets. One app displayed 911 response times by neighborhood. Another showed crime along Mardi Gras parade routes. Another broke down demographic and other characteristics in data on pedestrian and vehicle stops.

Events like this demonstrate that opening up data and building products on top of that data can be a force-multiplier for community benefits. And since we’re just getting started with the Police Data Initiative, we can’t wait to see what fantastic event it will lead to next! Maybe it will be in your city.

Denice Ross is a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the U.S. General Services Administration.

DJ Patil is the U.S. Chief Data Scientist.