Who created the first ‘murder map’? What did it show, and where?
Theoretically it could have been a scrap of paper featuring a rough pencil diagram and a cross to mark the spot. It could even have been drawn by the murderer himself.
But legend has it that the murder map truly began with a crime ‘mashup’ put together by journalist and web developer Adrian Holovaty in May 2005.
The website was then known as chicagocrime.org, and mapped not only murder but other types of crime in that city. Nowadays it’s part of a wider network called everyblock.com which maps everything from restaurant reviews in the local media to a house going on sale. And yes, murders.
This kind of murder mapping uses data taken directly from the local police force. As a result it gives little detail other than the location and a rough category (e.g domestic).
A similar example is crimereports.com – which describes itself as ‘the largest and most comprehensive crime-mapping network in the world’. The first thing you notice about it is that it tells you the location of every sex offender. There are a lot of them (the little triangles). And strangely if you click on a triangle it gives you their name, age, eye colour and photo.
These sites don’t extend to the UK yet, but they could do if our police forces published their data. For example, Spotcrime.org plainly intended to capture this ‘market’ but has since fallen into disrepair. It was last updated in London to reflect the student fee protests at Millbank in October last year.
As for dedicated murder maps, they tend to be run either by local newspapers, dedicated journalists or even community volunteers. This doesn’t mean they are all simple Google Map-based projects, like the one put together by the Daily Record in July 2008.
The Manchester Evening News were perhaps the first in the UK to join the trend in January 2008, by mapping every fatal shooting in the city since 1999, adding names, ages and a small photo for each victim. Sadly it doesn’t seem to have been updated since December 2009.
BBC Online joined the fray with its impressive map and statistical database of teenage murders across Britain in 2008 and 2009, at the height of concerns about youth crime and knives. It would have been interesting if they had continued the project, but alas they did not.
The true home of murder maps remains the US, and the most impressive example is still the LA Homicide Report. Its main innovation was that each homicide became in effect a separate blog entry. From this information an impressive database was built.
Not only does it map each murder since 2007 but it also displays the data in a very accessible way. The victims’ photos are displayed underneath in a gallery, each marker takes you to a detailed report of the crime and statistics for age, ethnicity and cause of death are all on the front page.
This is particularly impressive when you consider that there are over 800 homicides a year in Los Angeles. Still, it would be nice to have an idea whether the case was ever solved or if any suspects went to trial. At present the only updates are provided by members of the public adding their own comments.
Many major cities in America now have their own murder map, although the quality varies wildly. In Oakland, California they have an impressive map filter but very little information on the crimes themselves. This goes for Philadelphia too, which has an impressive database going back to 1988 but no sense of the story behind the name, age, race and gender of the victim.
Some maps are staggering just to look at. Take this one of Puerto Rico, which appears to have been launched this month:
This is an island slightly smaller in area than Cyprus with what appears to be 577 murders for the year 2010. Below the map is printed the disclaimer ‘Many murders do not appear on the map due to lack of specific information about the crime scene.’ Those purple balloons represent ‘unknown’ while yellow is ‘error or stray bullet’, green is ‘hate’, red is ‘drugs’ and blue is ‘fight or revenge’.
Other projects are more stylised, such as the ‘Not just a number’ website project which won awards for the way it mapped homicides in 2007.
There are many, many other examples, including a map for Flint, Michigan, which closed in March 2009. Its founder, freelance journalist Gordon Young, said in his blog:
It sparked some good discussions about how to cover homicides, but it proved to be way more work than I imagined. More importantly, I didn’t feel it was really providing much of a memorial to the people who died in Flint.
Ideally a murder map should not just map all murders but provide some kind of service to the community, whether by telling the victim’s side of the story, offering some context for the crime or giving an insight into how these cases are dealt with by the police, the media and the justice system.
If the database and the information within it are good enough, a map provides an alternative to the official statistics and may result in more openness in government. In this department, if nothing else, we are still lagging a long way behind the US.
USA: Alabama (Anniston, Birmingham), Arizona, California (Berkeley, Fresno, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo), Connecticut (New Haven), Delaware, Illinois (Chicago), Florida (Orlando), Kansas (Kansas City, Wichita), Louisiana (New Orleans), Maryland (Baltimore), New Jersey (Essex County), New York, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Tennessee (Memphis), Texas (Houston), Washington D.C