Crime Data from Cook County Released in Unprecedented Transparency Initiative
Cook County, Illinois, is home to the world’s largest unified court system — and now is making history as they roll out an unprecedented transparency initiative focused on crime data. The county is making huge strides to transition the prosecutor’s office to a data-driven department that is kept accountable and accessible to residents.
Exceptional Push for Transparency
When Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly M. Foxx took office in 2016, she identified a need to focus on data for improved transparency. Firmly committed to that effort, she went on to take a pledge for open transparency at a local ChiHack programming meeting. From there, Foxx hired the office’s first-ever Chief Data Officer, Matthew Saniie, and launched the 2017 data report to show how the prosecutor’s office operates.
“Our work must be grounded in data and evidence, and the public should have access to that information.” —Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly M. Foxx
The office also launched an open data portal on crime data for residents to quickly access and analyze. “For too long, the work of the criminal justice system has been largely a mystery,” said Foxx. “That lack of openness undermines the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. Our work must be grounded in data and evidence, and the public should have access to that information.”
Inside the Open Data Portal
The office’s open data portal contains more than 45 million data points on more than 300,000 distinct cases, dating back to 2010. Each case is organized into four tables, documenting the case’s movement through the prosecutor’s office: Intake, Initiation, Disposition, and Sentencing.
“This is really the first time that any prosecutor’s office has ever published any data remotely close to this,” said Saniie. “We’re pulling back the curtain and allowing the public to examine and make their own determinations on how we handle cases.”
“We’re pulling back the curtain and allowing the public to examine and make their own determinations on how we handle cases.” —Cook’s County Chief Data Officer Matthew Saniie
In preparing the open data portal, the office took great care to strike a balance between transparency and protecting the privacy of defendants. To de-identify individuals, hashed numerical identifiers are published in lieu of case numbers, so that cases, defendants, and charges can be followed easily without being traced back to individuals.
Positive Change Ahead
While the open data portal and data report have been live for a short amount of time, the department is already seeing a positive response from researchers and academic organizations interested in using the data. What’s more, media requests for specific case information have dropped, as that information can now be publicly accessed.
“This is our first step into providing a tool that hopefully becomes self-serve for those types of requests,” explains Saniie. “So when people have questions about how many vehicle manslaughter cases have happened in the last year, instead of us having to use internal resources to run those numbers, they can now have direct access to the data and work with it themselves.”
Looking ahead, the department hopes to expand the amount of open data provided, and strengthen partnerships with academic organizations to improve the way data can be showcased and used to better serve the community.
While this transparent approach is entirely unprecedented in a prosecutor’s office, Saniie and his team hope it’s the start of a positive systemic change. “This is a new thing in prosecution,” he said. “I think people are a little surprised that we did this — but we are very confident and stand behind it. We hope that we set the precedent and others will follow.”