Crime Mapping in Mexico
Today in the United Kingdom an official crime mapping website, Police.uk, launched and then came to a crashing halt after attracting as many as 18 million hits in a single hour, more traffic than any other British government website has ever experienced. In Mexico a surge of young crime mapping initiatives have yet to attract so much attention, but not for lack of effort. What follows is my translation of a recent article by Ignacio de los Reyes for BBC Mundo, “Can Technology Stop Crime in Mexico?” I add some of my own observations further below.
The development of military, law enforcement and intelligence technology has been a priority of the administration of Felipe Calderón during his four years of fighting crime. In fact, the president himself once acknowledged that he would like to have “all those toys” that appear in American action series, such as those of Jack Bauer in 24. But there are other toys that are much more affordable than the Blackhawk and Bell-412 helicopters used by the Mexican forces, which could also play a role in the fight against crime: cell phones and computers. In various Mexican states there are existing programs that allow citizens to report crimes via Internet or cell phone, and there are plans to incorporate others in the near future.
BBC World presents some of these initiatives and discusses their challenges.
In Guerrero, on the west coast of the country, Guerrero.Ciudadanos20 has been fully operational since July 2010. Similar to some projects that operate in various U.S. cities, this citizen reporting program allows residents of Guerrero to send an SMS or online message to authorities, who have committed to classifying and filing such reports so that the sender knows who is working to resolve the complaint and how long it will take. It also provides policy makers reporting statistics and a tool to send out mass text messages about security warnings to citizens that have registered on the website.
“From the outset it was conceived of as a program to report on the quality of life,” explains Jorge Soto, one of the creators of Guerrero.Ciudadanos20. The aim was for people to be able to report car accidents, roadblocks or their problems with garbage collection.
“But when we won the confidence of the people and established a link with the government, we began to receive other reports, such as homicides and the location of drug dealers,” Soto tells the BBC. The success of this program has led governments in Cancun, Zacatecas, Oaxaca and Veracruz to prepare for adoption of similar systems of citizen reporting.
American Cell Phones in Juárez
Even the U.S. State Department, through Merida Initiative funding, is working to incorporate a system of anonymous citizen crime reporting in Ciudad Juarez, where more than 6,400 people have been killed since 2006. There is still no date for the launch of the TipLine project, but the U.S. government says it has been working with Mexican authorities and civil society organizations to launch “in the coming months.” There are already official emergency numbers in Juarez that allow for residents to report crimes by telephone. The problem, says the State Department is that many Mexicans do not feel secure calling these services.
According to Alec Ross, Innovation advisor at Hillary Clinton’s office, the enormous cell phone penetration in this city, where up to 80% of the population has a mobile telephone, will facilitate the creation of a new anonymous reporting plan that can win the confidence of Juarez residents. “We are interested in helping to restore public confidence in the Mexican police, as well as ensure transparency and accountability in law enforcement,” he told the BBC.
“Once we have the opportunity to review the impact of TipLine in Juarez, there may be an opportunity to bring the project to other places,” said Ross.
There’s an “app” for that
There is also a reporting service for smartphones that describes itself as ‘100% citizen’. Propon.mx is an application for the iPhone and iPod Touch that is designed to provide a space “where citizen users report events and propose solutions”, according to the website. [Note: Propon is also available for the Blackberry and Android mobile operating systems which have a significant market share in Mexico.]
Its purpose is to publish citizen complaints in order “to help understand and ‘map out’ what is happening in our country.” For this it uses pictures that the users can take with their phone and send through the application.
Thanks to a geo-location system, users can also view reports on a map; everything from the location of pirated movie stalls to armed robberies.
Map of Heroes
Although it uses similar technology, the Hero Chronicles in Juarez project stands out from the previous applications. Its aim, in fact, is to report good deeds, not crimes.
“In Juárez violence has taken the place of the optimism and fighting spirit that characterizes the city,” say the creators of the site. “On the Hero Chronicles website heroism can be placed on a map to indicate which communities in Juarez report the most acts of heroism. It is a way to approach and understand ourselves more clearly as a city,” reads its website.
“Reports can range from small, positive acts, such as yielding a seat to a pregnant woman on public transportation to large heroic actions, such as helping victims in a car accident or promoting non-violence among gangs.”
There are those who are critical of some of these initiatives. And it is true that they still have some challenges. One such challenge is to ensure the anonymity of complaints to avoid retaliation. “There is still no system where you can talk about 100% anonymity for those who report,” said Jorge Soto, one of the founders of the citizen technology company Citivox. “For example, if reporting by SMS, the phone operator will have data about the incoming number, so we should really speak about confidentiality when it comes to controlling user data,” he adds.
The “bad users”
Another limitation of these systems is that, while intended to assist victims, it is difficult to keep out another set of potential users: criminals. In the case of applications that show reports on a map, criminal gangs could use this information to have a detailed plan of where their actions may go unnoticed, where rival groups operate, and where to find informants.
So … do these innovations really work, even with all their obstacles?
“Technology alone will not solve the problem of crime in Mexico, but it could be a factor to put pressure on the government to improve public policies,” concludes Soto. “You can use these technologies to fight crime, but first you must win the trust of citizens. And we must change the mindset of governments that are obsessed with bureaucracy and paperwork when it comes to reporting crime,” he explains.
“They have to understand that it is possible to do this all through SMS or the Internet.”
We have covered crime, citizen security, and the use mapping often here at Información Cívica. Earlier this year, after reviewing a number of case studies about crime mapping platforms in Latin America, I warned:
While mapping crime helps us better understand both where it occurs and how crime spreads over time, it does not necessarily lead toward pro-active solutions. In fact, it can even lead to paranoia and social exclusion if residents react by merely investing in higher walls and more expensive alarm systems. Crime mapping platforms should focus on prevention as much as after-the-fact reporting. We recommend that they integrate their content with social groups that are working in neighborhoods where crime is prevalent and youth are at risk.
While there are legitimate fears about how organized crime groups may take advantage of published crime data, we should also take into account the negative consequences of keeping crime statistics in the dark, as has occurred in Venezuela. Victoria Wigodzsky, outgoing program officer for Open Society Foundations’ Latin America Program explains:
Too often, citizen security issues are hyper-politicized and fall prey to the increasing polarization that characterizes many countries. When this happens, all aspects of citizen security reform suffer. Governments feel threatened and hide or manipulate information, which leads to an absence of reliable data from which to create a diagnosis as a basis for policy interventions.
So far crime mapping initiatives in Mexico do not have sufficient data to draw conclusions about the nature and evolution of crime in the country, however that may soon change depending on user adoption. For now we must rely on official government statistics, even if they are at times faulty, as statistician Diego Valle-Jones has noted.