Kudos to the California Department of Justice

With an Update to OpenJustice, California Takes The Lead In Clean, Accessible, Open Criminal Justice System Data

Today (February 18) at noon Pacific Time, the California Department of Justice (CADOJ) will relaunch OpenJustice, its incredible open site dedicated to bringing to citizens open, clear and accessible data about how they are policed*.

The site has had arrest and use of force data for some time. What it does today is launch a new feature of bringing county- and city level data to bring context to the state data. CADOJ refer to its effort as:

A transparency initiative led by the California Department of Justice that publishes criminal justice data so we can understand how we are doing, hold ourselves accountable, and improve public policy to make California safer.

I’ve long written that context is needed to make law enforcement data more understandable. Information, not just body counts, is key to understanding enough about critical incidents that we can learn from them, and affect positively our policy and procedure.

Why I am so impressed with the CADOJ initiative is that they have tried both to make the data accessible to everyone (through beautiful visualization), they are also staying very aware that any visualization is, by definition, editorialization — something they don’t seek to do.

In their words, “OpenJustice advances Attorney General Kamala D. Harris’s “Smart on Crime” vision by leveraging statistical data maintained by the California Department of Justice (CA DOJ) and other publicly available datasets.”

Beautiful.

Unlike most projects that deal with law enforcement data, CADOJ is trying its best to play this objectively as straight as possible. That is a hard road to walk, and we can see, especially in areas that have traditionally been fodder for the untrained (such as ethnicity of those arrested), CADOJ is really trying to get it right.

One of the most carefully monitored data-points in recent days has been that of race and ethnicity of those arrested and of those against whom force or deadly force were used by the police.

OpenJustice tries to bring some clarity to this, and in some ways succeeds, while in others it is working very hard to bring contextual data to the fore.

As an example, a comparison (as we see above) of the race and ethnicity of those arrested against the racial composition of the state would appear to be a data point, but it is clear to demographers that better predictors of criminality would be issues including poverty, substance abuse, education, nutrition, and other factors long discussed by social scientist — race comes almost dead last in this list.

OpenJustice is working admirably to provide Californians meaningful statistics — information, not just data — here and in future revamps.

Of course, the most exciting thing to me is that the data is open and being provided with tools to help understand the data they are seeing, without special software. That is very important.

It also speaks to where California DOJ is going with this. Obviously they have decided that transparency — sunlight — is the best solution for problems.

I could not agree more. Congratulations, CA DOJ! What an amazing job you’ve done so far…and this is just the beginning!

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*This was originally written on 11 February, when the launch was planned, but there were a number of officers killed that week. CADOJ decided that it would be disrespectful to law enforcement to launch these data products during that period. This is another aspect to the launch and to the effort I find truly amazing: CADOJ is trying to work with law enforcement in a manner that is by my reckoning unique in the nation: a partnership in which partners can be critical without taking sides. The launch was delayed a week and the product is now online.