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Virtual crime wave at another city hall

April 7, 2009 |  2:09 pm

Savannah

The same computer glitches that The Times exposed in the LAPD's crime mapping site -- errors that created a virtual crime wave downtown near Los Angeles City Hall -- also mar a similar site in Savannah, Ga.

But here's the difference. According to Savannah police spokeswoman Judy Pal, data analysts there noticed their City Hall problem almost immediately -- and took steps to alert users. Before readers can visit the site from the Savannah police website, they are confronted with a lengthy explanation of its shortcomings, including a note that "addresses that cannot be 'read' or mapped for any reason will show at the address of City Hall, on Bay Street."

In contrast, LAPD published similar errors for three years, never noticing the erroneous cluster of crime reports around City Hall until notified by Times reporters. And those errors were compounded on aggregation sites like EveryBlock.com, where the incorrect data were presented over longer periods of time and used to create a ranking that consistently placed the downtown ZIP Code 90012 as L.A.'s most crime-ridden.

The Savannah site was built by the same contractor as LAPD's, ePolicing, a joint effort between local Web design firm Lightray Productions and software engineers at Psomas. The Savannah police chief, Michael Berkow, is a former LAPD assistant chief. 

His department's site, metropolicemaps.org, uses the addresses from dispatch calls where police officers are sent out to investigate a crime to map locations, while the LAPD relies on reports filed after an initial investigation.

Although the source of the locations of crimes differ, the sites are virtually identical otherwise.

"Statistics can be dangerous in anyone's hands," Pal said. "[But] we think it's better to provide [a flawed map] to the public than not to provide that. We think that any bit of information that's going to help [the public] make decisions is going to be helpful."

LAPD officials, once alerted to the problem by The Times, said they would work with their contractor to improve their site's accuracy. In addition, the crimes that were mistakenly ending up near City Hall were given new coordinates, at least temporarily migrating them to a point in the Atlantic Ocean off the western coast of Africa.

-- Ben Welsh

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