Colin Drane operates the website SpotCrime.com, which obtains publicly available crime records from police agencies and graphically displays them on colorful maps. Drane tells Poynter.org the site attracts a million views a month from people curious about the burglaries, shootings, and other bedlam in their towns. The site makes money through advertising and from partnerships with television stations and other media organizations.
More than 300 law-enforcement agencies around the U.S. provide electronic access to their crime reports. He's had conflicts with dozens of other agencies, which either deny him access entirely or provide information that's dated or incomplete. Often, he finds that agencies already have struck deals with one of his larger competitors. The owners of sites such as CrimeReports.com, CrimeMapping.com, and RAIDS online compile and publish similar maps. “Police departments contract with a vendor and give them preferential access to very important public data,” Drane said. “If you've got agencies controlling the information through a vendor, that's not full transparency, and it limits accountability.” As private companies have discovered there's profit to be made from some kinds of government records, public agencies increasingly are outsourcing parts of their recordkeeping. That's led to disputes over whether private firms can receive exclusive or preferential access to public data, copyright it, or withhold it from business competitors and other parties who request it.