White House Wants Techies to Delve Into Police Data

White House Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil

White House Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil Flickr user JD Lasica

The program intends to make police data more transparent to the public.

It’s been almost a year since the White House announced an effort to make police data available to the public, and now top officials are appealing to techies to delve into that data.

Since launching, more than 50 jurisdictions have signed up to share their data as part of the effort. Together, those groups have released about 90 data sets, in categories such as “Officer-Involved Shootings” and “Pedestrian Stops” -- just shy of the initial goal, to publish a total of 101 new data sets.

As more police jurisdictions sign on, the White House is urging researchers to apply technology such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to those data sets.

“Sure, there’s a very small number of bad apples,” White House Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil said during a Police Data Initiative event in Washington on Friday. “But are we really doing what’s right by the officer if they just responded to a domestic violence incident with kids in the home and we just put them right back out on patrol?”

“We have a world in which technology can get you a package you bought on your mobile phone within hours," Patil continued. "Why aren’t we thinking about the dynamic nature of data coming in and using that data to ensure that we’re thinking about the officer as well? Maybe they need a different type of moment. Maybe they need a pause.”

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President Barack Obama recently attended the SXSW music and technology festival to reach new, potential tech recruits. Megan Smith, the White House chief technology officer, said Obama was trying to attract creative “Burning Man-flash mob” devotees “who come together and really drive the innovation economy.”

The president’s message, she added, was that in addition to working for companies “delivering food from restaurants,” or sharing rides and spaces, they could also “dive into these problems . . . to solve justice problems, equality problems.”

In the past year, a handful of outside groups have pledged to help with the police data effort. Mapping software company Esri, for instance, plans to host webinars showing law enforcement agencies how to share information with the public.

But there are also challenges.

“Privacy issues abound across all these data sets,” Smith said -- especially those that reveal information about sexual assaults, domestic violence and juvenile-related incidents. A productive discussion “would be not just saying, ’Oh, we can’t post that,’ but saying how might we work with these data sets in a new way. That will allow us to build trust and reveal what’s happening in our community," she said.