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Public Safety Commission dives into data transparency at APD

Friday, July 8, 2022 by Veronica Apodaca

The Austin Police Department gave a presentation on its efforts to improve data transparency at the Public Safety Commission meeting on Tuesday. The presentation, given by APD Research and Planning Division Manager Jason Matson, focused on how the public can access police department data sets.

“Unless it’s protected by certain very narrow focuses of the law, most all data is available at the public’s request,” Matson said.

Matson said when it comes to sharing data with the public, police departments tend to focus on data they believe people will be most interested in, rather than creating large amounts of data sets, which he said could become overwhelming.

In APD’s case, different types of data sets are arranged into categories on the city website. Among these categories are data related to racial profiling, officer-involved shootings, and the level of force used by officers on a call.

If someone is searching for a wider range of data, however, the Austin Open Data Portal stores all data submitted to APD’s record management system since 2003, when APD began using the Versadex software for record management. Currently, APD’s crime report data shows roughly 2.42 million reports that are accessible to the public. APD is able to use this data to create data sets that the public might request through the police department’s public records center.

“There’s really an infinite number of different data sets that you can then create, just depending on what the specific nuances are,” Matson said.

The commission also heard from the Office of Police Oversight. Public Information and Marketing Program manager Sara Peralta discussed how the information available from the office supplements data from the Research and Planning Division. In addition to analyses of data from APD, OPO’s website also publishes the office’s reports and policy recommendations, public disciplinary reports, and educational information on people’s rights when interacting with the police.

When looking at the future of data transparency in the department, APD hopes to increase staffing and find software that will improve data accessibility.

“We want to be able to utilize the advantages of increased technologies to … allow the community to take various tools and then be able to apply that to our data set themselves … to manipulate and to create their own specific, nuanced (data) requests,” Matson said.

Matson also hopes that improved software and increased staffing will mark an improvement in the division’s timeliness when responding to data requests. The division receives an average of 25,000 to 30,000 public information requests a year. Each request must be responded to within 10 days, which Matson said can be difficult when there is a high level of requests and a small number of staffers. The division is in the process of evaluating several software programs in order to find one that is more user-friendly.

“The continued improvement to access of data, which is the overall process of trying to bring together better (public) education with better technology with increased staffing, (makes it) a much more interactive process. People can regularly understand in layman’s terms what it is that’s going on within their community, so that way they can ask the questions that they truly want to get to,” Matson said.

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