NYPD Goes Out of Its Way to Obscure Street Safety Data

It took several months and some needling from the Daily News, but NYPD this week finally complied with a new city law requiring the department to release data on traffic crashes. Unless you have the time and resources to comb through and analyze hundreds of pages of rows and columns, however, good luck getting much use out of it.

Traffic crash data as it appears on CrashStat...

The Saving Lives Through Better Information Act was passed by the City Council, over the objections of NYPD, in February. The intent was to provide the public with monthly data on summonses and traffic crashes, with the crash data “searchable by intersection” and “disaggregated by the number of motorists and/or injured passengers, bicyclists and pedestrians involved; and the apparent human contributing factor or factors involved.” If you want to find out how many crashes occur in your neighborhood, what’s causing them, and which streets are the most dangerous, this law is supposed to help you.

...and as it appears in NYPD's data dump.

But those looking to learn what’s happening on their streets will have their work cut out for them. Far from the model developed by Transportation Alternatives for CrashStat, which plugs geo-coded crash information into a map of NYC, the initial NYPD crash data dump consists of six PDF files. You can’t search a map for the intersections near your home, school, or office.

Here’s the punchline: You can scour a 300-page doc for the streets near you, and with sufficient time and effort, eventually piece together what’s going on — until the next month, when your slog begins anew. Data on summonses, meanwhile, are issued in a separate report in much the same format. If you want to know where drivers are getting ticketed for violating traffic laws, these documents won’t help you.

“If the NYPD really wanted to make the streets safer for pedestrians, it would make it easier to look at the agency’s traffic data and not bury the public in hard to search documents,” said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group.

That would have been simple enough, according to Noel Hidalgo, co-organizer of the Open NY Forum and former director of technology innovation for the New York State Senate. “NYPD crash data should be going into the city’s data mine, where every other city agency places their data,” he said. “It’s three years old. From the Department of Education to public safety, data should be coming through a centralized website.”

Hidalgo said NYPD could release geo-coded crash data using MapPLUTO, which the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications has put together to serve as a common platform for all city agencies. “This is like the 17th century of information technology,” he said. “If anything, this adds more confusion to incident reports, and I can promise you that displaying information in this manner adds more burden to the NYPD.”

Juan Martinez, general counsel for Transportation Alternatives, questioned whether the data release complies with the law. “The way the PD chose to publish the data makes me wonder if it is in fact ‘disaggregated’ — you can’t separate out crashes caused by trucks, for instance, short of hitting ‘control+f’ a bunch of times. Had the PD simply released an Excel sheet, it would have been better.”

Martinez pointed out that Mayor Bloomberg “made a career of taking big, complicated datasets and making them accessible,” and wonders how a major agency like NYPD could be exempted from following the city’s commitment to open data.

“We recently reached out to NYPD and offered them the code for CrashStat, and offered to work with them to port their data into CrashStat,” says Martinez. “Our offer still stands.”