This afternoon I have been following the mis-framing of Chicago’s newly announced plan to release 10 years of… not crime statistics as has been reported, but… police incident reports. From the Boston Globe:

Chicago to publish crime stats online

CHICAGO—Long a city with a reputation for withholding information, Chicago now wants to make public every crime over the past 10 years – a highly unusual move among the nation’s major police departments.

Starting Wednesday, millions of crime statistics dating to 2001 will be posted online in a searchable database. It will be updated daily, providing fodder for residents to evaluate their own neighborhoods, academics to study crime and techie types to create websites or apps.

I’ll harp on that last sentence in which the “techie type’s” activities are described so rudderlessly: this data will fuel a hundred red and green heatmaps, but probably provide little opportunity for reflection on the true nature of this data—police incident reports—let alone the politics, policies and policing that generated this data in the first place. Just as an example, this is from a WBEZ story entitled “ The downside of hiring more cops in Chicago”:

But there are also costs with increasing the number of police on the street and those costs can be tough to measure. “The good intentions of actually creating the uniformed presence to lower the immediate problems of crime may have an unintended result when you’re looking further down the line,” according to George Gascon. He’s the district attorney for the city of San Francisco, and before that he was the chief of police. He says low-income, often minority communities, are flooded with police, and residents are over-criminalized. Lots of people are arrested, sometimes for small infractions.

Kids get criminal records, they’re cut off from educational and employment opportunities, and all of that ultimately makes the crime problems worse. “I’m not saying that we should look the other way to crime, to the contrary. What I’m saying is that the strategies that we used in the past have not worked well, and we need to evolve away from that. In many neighborhoods basically we have been at war with our people,” Gascon said.

An incident does not make an indictment, and an infraction need not be a crime, let alone a conviction; nor should we forget what goes unreported. And yet this dataset is being distributed and—this is the actual problem—represented by the media and (soon) a myriad of websites and apps as full-stop crime.

This is not a criticism of the police or the City of Chicago, who should be commended for being more transparent and making this information more readily available; this is a plea for the media and application makers to appropriately label this data and use it with an understanding of its limitations.

Ben Fry, on visualization future and data literacy looks toward the future:

“I think the real thing that’s going to change is that we’re going to start understanding that visualization isn’t this sort of monolithic thing… I like to look at it a lot like writing. You have novels and poetry and haikus. You know there’s lots of different types of writing and styles of writing — and I think the same thing happens in visualization… some things are tools for analysis and some things are purely for entertainment, and there’s not so much a spectrum that there is different ways of addressing it.

But this understanding and widespread “data literacy” is not here yet. Its up to us so called techie types to exhibit “Data Leadership” and work to better interpret the and explain the complexity and nuance of our analysis—the absence of which I’ve complained about before.

Data leadership is appropriately labeling data. Data leadership is presenting data with a recognition of its limitations. Data leadership is consideration for how your presentation of data may be interpreted and responsibility for the consequences.

Data leadership is ultimately a recognition of the broader context of human experience and how information is collected, analyzed and integrated into our lives and decision-making processes—both individually and socially. I realize that’s awfully heady for discussing glorified spreadsheets, but to riff off the old chestnut, you can’t manage what you misrepresented.

(Thanks Justin, Bec and David for drawing my attention to this.)