Like most members of the MySpace.com generation, Joshua B. Plotkin thinks that anything worth telling is worth telling online. Plotkin is a 30-year-old assistant professor of biology at Penn who has started a neat little website called Phillycrime.org. By merging a clever mapping tool from Google with weekly lists of crime reports from Penn and the local police district, Plotkin’s site allows users to plot out the latest trends in University City assaults, robberies and shootings.
Assuming that the rest of the city might also like to know where their neighbors are getting beaten up or shot at, Plotkin wants the Philadelphia police to give him regular crime data updates from all police districts. In Chicago, the police department gladly shares these numbers with an impressive citizen site called Chicagocrime.org. So why not here? Why not indeed.
As you might guess, Joshua Plotkin is new in town. Welcome to Philadelphia, Josh—the town the ’Net forgot.
Philadelphia will soon be the first big American city to offer wi-fi—wireless Internet—to every household and business inside city limits. There is considerable irony to this, because inside City Hall itself, the only thing more frightening than the Internet is a fed waving a subpoena.
Sure, you can pay parking tickets and taxes online, but City Hall prefers to keep the information superhighway running like a one-way toll road. Money flows in, but information can’t flow out. Even those city government web pages that don’t look like some fourth-grader’s slapdash homework fail to offer basic information everyone should know. You can’t find hearing dates on the City Council site. You can’t find out where to vote on the city commissioners’ site. If snow postpones your trash day, you won’t see it posted on the streets department site. The police website is bad, but it’s only the worst of a very bad bunch.
Consider for a moment what Josh Plotkin is trying to do with Phillycrime.org. On his own time, at his own expense, he wants to provide a resource that the police department, with its $480 million annual budget, should have put online 10 years ago. The cops in Baltimore, Chicago and New York all make their weekly district results public on their websites. Philadelphia’s police website, by contrast, offers only annual citywide totals for seven crime categories and some links to bewilderingly confusing databases run by other agencies. Sift through them and you still can’t tell if crime got better or worse last month in your neighborhood. Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson likes to complain that his people can’t solve the crime problem without community help, but how can we help if he won’t let anyone know what’s going on?
Plotkin is just the latest of several citizen webmasters who have had to fight City Hall for public information. The most prominent is Ed Goppelt, gadfly founder of Hallwatch.org. Goppelt’s website features the reliable calendar of City Council hearings that Council’s own lame homepage doesn’t (Who wants the public at public hearings?), and an automated polling site locator that allows anyone to punch in a home address and find out where to vote. The city commissioners, who run Philadelphia elections, offer no such service on their primitive website. Headed for more than 20 years by a malignant fossil named Marge Tartaglione, the commissioners have reflexively blocked Hallwatch’s requests to put public information online.
What are department heads like Johnson and Tartaglione afraid of? Goppelt’s track record offers a clue. Back in 2002, he clashed with the BRT, the city’s Board of Revision of Taxes, because he wanted to put its entire database of property appraisals and tax information online in a searchable format. The board refused, with lame excuses about costs and homeowner privacy, even though other cities have had this info online for years. But Goppelt got hold of a bootleg copy of the database and put it on Hallwatch.org. The embarrassed BRT posted a more limited version of the property tax database the very next day.
Now anyone can go to “brtweb.phila.gov” and discover what the BRT was trying to hide. Call up the tax appraisal figures for houses on your block, and you’ll bear witness to the worst, most nonsensical system of property taxation imaginable. On my own block, there’s a house identical to mine except that it has a two-car driveway—in a neighborhood where it can take half an hour to find a parking space. And guess what? My taxes are higher! Without the web, the BRT’s hopeless incompetence could have remained a secret forever.
Who knows what evils and omissions lurk in the databases of the city commissioners and the police? The last time the police were forced to open their records to the media, the Inquirer unearthed a scandalous number of underreported crimes and concluded the cops were cooking the books to make themselves look good. So now Johnson and the police brass shut the public out entirely. They prefer to cover their asses, thank you very much—even if it means that yours might get shot off.
It is just short of a miracle that Wireless Philadelphia could emerge from such a self-protecting culture of government. Sadly, once the wi-fi cloud descends on us in 18 months or so, few of the city’s web offerings are likely to take full advantage of its opportunities. With cheap public-access broadband, the web could transform policing into a collaborative partnership between district commanders and local residents. District websites could alert the neighborhoods where muggings and burglaries are breaking out. Regular e-mails from each district captain could give every citizen the same daily update on local crime problems that beat cops get at the start of their shifts.
If they wanted to, the police could use the web to help make each city neighborhood as safe as a small town. Small towns, after all, aren’t safe just because they’re small. They’re also safe because everyone knows everyone else—the good and the bad alike.
And that might be the problem. Small-town folk all know who the troublemakers are, but they can also tell you which of the local cops are stupid, lazy, crooked, or all three. If Josh Plotkin can keep pushing for his crime data without losing his patience or his mind, we’ll soon find out who has more to fear from becoming better known on the web—Philly’s cops or Philly’s robbers.