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Opinion: NYPD Bureaucrat Misunderstands Ownership of Public Data

If you’ve got nothing to hide…  

The New York Times ran an interesting story about software developers writing applications that rely on city data such as crime, accidents and transit schedules.

Governments collect and produce more and more data these days about all sorts of functions. In forward-thinking cities, the result is a slew of apps to learn about restaurant hygene scores, after-school activities for kids, the safest route home and more.

In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom has essentially challenged even his enemies to mine city data and make sure he and other city workers are doing their jobs.

But not all cities are so forthcoming. The Times explains:

Still, asking for the data is often not enough. Software developers in New York have been unsuccessful in getting data feeds of pedestrian and bicyclist injuries and fatalities from the Police Department, said Noel Hidalgo, who is director of technology innovation for the New York State Senate and has been working with developers on building city-data applications. He envisions applications that overlay accident information on city bike maps.

But here’s the gem:

Paul J. Browne, a deputy commissioner of the New York City Police Department, said it releases information about individual accidents to journalists and others who request it, but would not provide software developers with a regularly updated feed. “We provide public information, not data flow for entrepreneurs,” he said.

Sorry, officer, that data belongs to the public. Just because it’s embarrassing to the city doesn’t mean you have a right to just trickle it out to “journalists and others” who jump through your hoops in a manner that pleases NYPD. This is taxpayer-financed information that is of interest to the public – and, in the case of the aforementioned bike app, can contribute to public safety.

Honestly, are we supposed to believe that bike and pedestrian accident information somehow jeopardizes the security of America’s greatest city? Or is the real fear that real-time data on the muggings and carnage hurt the image its political leaders are trying to develop, or get local residents up in arms when they see how dangerous their neighborhoods really are?

We’re not exactly talking troop movements here.

Here’s the irony, in case it’s not obvious: New York, more than any other major American city (except possibly Chicago) has boldly set up a London-style network of cameras and other devices that provide the government with real-time feeds of millions of people who are going about their daily business. The expanding security Web in New York was one of the cornerstones of Mike Bloomberg’s recent $80 million re-election campaign. By walking down the street, New Yorkers implicitly agree that in an age of instant, massive data collection, they just have to get used to less of the privacy and anonymity they once expected.

But when it comes to delivering real-time info back out to the public? Sorry, no “data flow” for those nasty “entrepreneurs.” At least not in New York.

As we like to say to people who oppose public surveillance cameras: If you’ve got nothing to hide…