Data Devolution: The Topography of Crime

by Katia Savchuk

Next time my mom berates me for taking the bus late at night, I’ll be able to back up my claim that that particular part of downtown is totally safe at two in the morning. That’s thanks to SF Crimespotting, a new site that superimposes detailed crime data from police records onto an accessible and pretty mapping interface.

Built by Stamen, a design studio specializing in data visualization, SF Crimespotting – like its Oakland-focused predecessor – maps crimes in the city to street level with color-coded dots representing an array of transgressions. The snazziest part is that it lets you limit your search by time period (month, week, day or subsection thereof) or by broader intervals like “commute,” “dark” (nearest hour), and “swing shift.” They’re also working on RSS feeds that send alerts when crimes occur in areas you specify.

Besides the tool's potential impacts on the real-estate market, crime prosecution and agoraphobia rates, Crimespotting is cool in that it recognizes the connection between space and the social. Most social analysis mistakenly considers the environment to be a neutral backdrop to interactions and ignores the interplay between people and space.

For one, representing information geographically can lead to some unexpected (and aesthetically pleasing) correlations, like this image by Stamen partner Shawn Allen blending trees, cabs and crime.

SF Crimespotting can also serve as a myth buster (there were a lot more crimes around that downtown bus stop when it was light out than when it was dark!) that can not only calm my mom's fears, but also potentially reshape our mental maps of the city. Realistically, though, most people won’t reference the site enough for this objective information to substantially alter their views of neighborhoods, which have a lot to do with personal experience and emotional valence.

The folks at Stamen, who undertook the project independently of the city or police department, are mappers with a mission:
We’ve found ourselves frustrated by the proprietary systems and long disclaimers that ultimately limit information available to the public. As citizens we have a right to public information. A clear understanding of our environment is essential to an informed citizenry.
Crimespotting democratizes access to geo-specific data, making it possible for anyone to get information about their environment. They make it even easier to share information by allowing you to pass on links to a particular view of the map. Decentralizing geographic data not only enables anyone to be a social scientist, but is critical for strengthening local decision-making and community planning efforts.

Credits: Images from and Flickr user Shawn Allen.


Polis is a collective blog about cities worldwide. We offer multimedia posts on diverse urban-related themes, encouraging submissions from experts and enthusiasts alike.

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Hector Fernando BurgaHector Fernando Burga was born in Lima, Peru, and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. He is a doctoral candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley and a former graduate fellow at the Center for Research on Social Change. An architect and urban designer by training, his research focuses on metropolitan Miami, where he investigates how empowered immigrant communities challenge institutional planning practices through material, legal and cultural claims to the city. These interrogations are framed by an understanding of critical urban theory, ethnographic methods and professional practice. He is a co-founder of the Design Justice Hub, a project drawing from the fields of urban studies, planning, policy, ethnic studies and design to develop research-oriented initiatives that confront social and racial inequality in the built environment.

Min Li Chan hails from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and has most recently lived in Hong Kong, New York and San Francisco. She is perennially curious and passionate about the intersection of technology, entrepreneurship, public policy, international development, anthropology and design. Upon graduating from Stanford University in electrical engineering, Min Li joined Google, traveled and worked across cities in Asia Pacific on a range of initiatives, including technologies for emerging economies, NGOs and open web developers. Previously, Min Li has contributed to iinnovate, a podcast on innovation and entrepreneurship and Solutions Magazine, a publication on social entrepreneurship. Min Li is currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. When not traveling and observing the way people live and use technology, she is a self-professed music geek and enjoys playing music, walking in and photographing urban spaces and people, and connecting with fellow global nomads.

Natalia EcheverriNatalia Echeverri was born in New York City but grew up in Bogota, Colombia. She is an architect and lecturer in the urban design program at the University of Hong Kong. She received a master’s degree in architecture and city planning from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was awarded the J.K. Branner Traveling Fellowship to research the impact of financial speculation in cities at the onset of the 2008 global economic crisis. Her current research centers on the consequences of urban transformations occurring at an unprecedented pace and scale in Asia. Before joining the University of Hong Kong faculty, Natalia developed an architecture, urban design and landscape architecture practice that continues to take on interdisciplinary projects.

Melanie FriedrichsMelanie Friedrichs grew up outside of Washington DC and graduated from Brown University with a degree in economics in the spring of 2012. Her interest in cities stems from a round-the-world comparative study abroad program that looked at urban issues in New York, Delhi, Dakar, and Buenos Aires. She joined the first class of Venture for America fellows after graduating and will spend her next two years working for urban revitalization through entrepreneurship in low-income American cities. She has a strong interest in social enterprise and its intersection with community development, and in the role of institutional change in economic growth. She is also an avid ultimate frisbee player.

Anna FogelAnna Fogel works for ShoreBank International, an international consulting firm in Washington, D.C., that works to expand access to finance, focusing on microfinance, housing finance and small business finance. She was previously a Trustman Traveling Fellow and studied low-income housing development in India and Israel for a year. She spent six months in India evaluating the sustainability of the design and financing of slum redevelopment programs. She then worked in Israel on the beginnings of community participation in planning in Jaffa. She returned to the USA to work on Obama’s campaign in Youngstown, Ohio, where she witnessed a rustbelt city’s housing challenges. She worked with housing advocacy organizations in New York, Boston and DC while earning her BA at Harvard College where she wrote a thesis on the design of a low-rise, high-density housing project in Brooklyn.

Tere García AlcarazTere García Alcaraz is an architect and development practitioner from Catalonia, with a focus on community planning in informal settlements. She studied architecture at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and, after several years of working in Barcelona, continued her architectural studies at London Metropolitan University. Fascinated by cities and their cultures and people, Tere researches gaps between the formal and informal in urban environments. She specializes in participatory planning and design, slum-upgrading and diversity in the built environment. She has worked on research projects in Spain, Venezuela and the United Kingdom. Tere is also a member of L.P.U., and the author of Train of Thought.

Melissa García LamarcaMelissa García Lamarca spent her formative years in Mexico City, which subconsciously piqued her fascination with cities, especially issues of space, place, community, social change and sustainability. She explored these themes through studies in geography, economics, development and urban design in development. Melissa has grown up a nomad, working and living in many places around the world. Her longest "home" was Montreal, where she worked on sustainability issues at Concordia University, and with Sustainability Solutions Group, a consulting cooperative that helps create more sustainable institutions and places. She was a traveling faculty member for IHP Cities in the 21st Century in 2011, and a teaching fellow at the UCL Development Planning Unit in 2012. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Manchester School of Environment and Development, studying the institutionalization of insurgent claims in urban development.

Rebecka GordanRebecka Gordan is a journalist focusing on the social aspects of architecture, design and city planning. She is an editor and reporter at Arkitekten, the journal of the Swedish Association of Architects, and editor for New Urban Topologies, an international urban exchange project. She is the author of a forthcoming book on informal housing in India. Previously, Rebecka was assistant editor at The Architect's Newspaper in N.Y. and a contributor to the 2010 yearbook of the Swedish Museum of Architecture. She received a B.A. in Modern Urban History and an M.A. in Journalism from Stockholm University.

Ali MadadAli Madad is a designer, writer, educator, hierophant and principal in New York and Los Angeles based SCTY, a multi-disciplinary art and design practice dedicated to the manifestation of creative disruptions. His work focuses on the both the theoretical and practical role design plays within culture and public space. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Design at Pratt Institute since 2004 and was a Visiting Artist at Cooper Union in 2009.

Vivien ParkVivien Park is a Hong Kong-born, Chicago-based installation and new media artist. After working for several years as an interaction and graphic designer for the high-tech industry in Seattle, Vivien returned to the academic setting in 2005 to complete her degree in painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Fascinated by topology, place and non-place, she explores these ideas in site-specific installations that draw references from architecture, construction materials, and her experiences in the corporate world. Vivien has exhibited in various group and solo shows in Chicago. She designs next-generation user experiences for Motorola during the day, and occasionally VJs for electronic music shows under the name gravitymax.

Jordi Sánchez-CuencaJordi Sánchez-Cuenca is a Spanish urban planner, trained in Barcelona’s School of Architecture and London’s Development Planning Unit. He has lived and worked in Barcelona, Hanoi, London, Nagercoil, Pondicherry and Palma de Mallorca, and had short work experiences in Accra, Belo Horizonte, Ho Chi Minh City, Madrid, Mumbai, Nanjing and Pune. Jordi is currently working in Quito, Ecuador, coordinating 3 ministries and 5 UN agencies in the implementation of an innovative water and sanitation programme. Jordi is a particularly stubborn supporter of participatory democracy and environmental sustainability, and he’s constantly looking for new opportunities to be challenged on these issues.

Katia SavchukKatia Savchuk is a freelance journalist and photographer and a Fellow at the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she is a graduate student. Previously, she spent a year and a half as a consultant for the Mumbai affiliate of Shack/Slum Dwellers International and worked as a private investigator conducting due-diligence, anti-corruption and litigation-related investigations around the world. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, City Limits, PBS MediaShift and the Palo Alto Weekly. She received a B.A. in Social Studies from Harvard and an M.Sc. in Urbanisation and Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Follow her on Twitter @katiasav.

Alex SchafranAlex Schafran is a planner, urbanist and geographer living in Paris. He recently completed a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, and now teachers urban studies and geography at two universities in Paris and does research on the transformation of French and American suburbs. A collection of his writing, including an anthology of 50+ pieces for Polis, can be found at

Peter SigristPeter Sigrist is a doctoral student in City and Regional Planning at Cornell University. He is currently working on a historical study of shared space around apartment buildings in Moscow. His interests include adaptive reuse, horticulture, art and walking around in cities.

Cristiana StravaCristiana Strava was born and raised in Romania. After studying anthropology and visual and environmental studies at Harvard, she was awarded a Michael Rockefeller Fellowship to travel to Morocco, where she worked with the Moroccan Energy Ministry to document the potential for solar-powered architecture in the Middle Atlas region and studied vernacular architecture and sustainable building techniques. Cristiana is a budding audio-visual artist who has filmed and produced videos on community adaptation to climate change and representation of the exotic "other." She is currently a doctoral student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where she explores new methodological tools for a phenomenological approach to slum redevelopment.

Andrew WadeAndrew Wade is faculty on the International Honors Program “Cities in the 21st Century” – a comparative cities course that critically investigates urban issues in New Orleans, São Paulo, Cape Town and Hanoi. His research aims to diversify applications of design thinking and interpret the spatial consequences of development and planning policies. He has consulted for strategy and design practice 00:/ in London and authored a case study on sustainable housing for the United Nations Environment Programme. Raised in rural Maryland and based in New York, he studied at the McGill University School of Architecture in Montréal and the Development Planning Unit of University College London. Follow him on Twitter @taylorwade.

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