Anyone can report an incident on CityCop, but it's not at all clear what that means. 

A new crime reporting smartphone app has become an addictive new habit for concerned citizens of Montevideo, Uruguay. But the crowdsourced data produced by CityCop might be creating more problems than it really solves.

CityCop was downloaded more than 25,000 times in just the first few weeks after its launch, and has already been used to report over 20,000 “incidents.” Keep in mind there are only 3.2 million people in all of Uruguay.

Though Latin American countries in general are worried about security, Uruguay is particularly obsessed: 36 percent of the population thinks security is the country’s biggest problem, despite its relative safety when compared to neighbors.

The app aims to create a reliable source of information regarding public safety problems at the neighborhood level. Its creators claim that crime in Uruguay is underreported because people are unwilling to face the hassle of going to the police station.

If their hypothesis is right, an easier, digital reporting tool seems like an obvious answer. But the complexity of public safety policies and responses make the Wikipedia approach especially thorny in this case. The app tackles an immediate problem, underreporting, but doesn’t set in motion official legal, investigative, or palliative responses that make reporting crime useful in the first place. Imagine logging a medical emergency in a similar app instead of calling an ambulance.

Crimes require government involvement in order to be resolved, especially in serious cases such as homicide or sexual abuse. The app’s system of anonymous reporting, with variable quality of information, makes it hard for officials to follow up on complaints—not to mention the potential for pranksters.

There are also civil rights concerns when anonymous reporting is made so easy, and aided by features that allow users to upload pictures of alleged drug users or suspicious characters.

A Montevideo resident reported someone being robbed two hours ago on the CityCop app. (CityCop)

Most worrisome, crime data has huge policy and political implications, which create a big incentive for manipulating that information. Citizens have good reasons to mistrust officials, but what’s to keep crowdsourcing honest? Public safety is a critical issue in the upcoming national presidential elections in Uruguay, and biased data (official or crowdsourced) could very well have an impact on that race.

Even if one assumes well-intentioned users, it’s not clear that the statistics generated will be trustworthy unless guidelines ensure some uniformity of criteria.

These flaws have kept the government from supporting CityCop. “The application generates confusion, it’s not trustworthy,” the Ministry of Interior’s spokesperson, Fernando Gil, told the Spanish newspaper El País. “Anonymous reports are a double-edged sword, they can be manipulated to make real estate prices in a neighborhood rise or fall,” for example, he said.

A modified version of the app—run by the government and incorporating identity verification—could complement traditional reporting methods like 911 calls. Or be targeted specifically toward lesser crimes, like broken car windows or cell phone theft.

Still, even if the quality of information is ensured, an increasingly dubious concept, the average user (myself included) has no idea how to interpret it. The site features a banner running recent reports: “Auto theft, 21 minutes ago,” “Assault, 22 minutes ago,” “Auto theft, 49 minutes ago,” “Suspicious activity, 2 hours ago.” A random perusal of complaints included a trash dumpster being lit on fire, drugs allegedly being sold on a corner, a messenger assaulted in the downtown area, and several houses that were burgled. Suspicious activity included two men walking a dog in a neighborhood, “looking for people to rob.” These kinds of data points are more alarming than useful.

The CityCop crime map also has a thicket of pinpoints in the upscale neighborhoods of Pocitos and Puerto del Buceo, which may relate more to the app’s user population than those areas’ relative crime rates.

But, CityCop’s popularity points to a frustration in Montevideo with response to crime, real or perceived. And that is probably the most interesting piece of data the app will produce for public officials. At heart, the problem is not just about information; it’s also clearly indicative of mistrust in government officials and their crime-fighting effectiveness. And that’s a problem officials should be targeting with urgency.

Meanwhile, the app’s creators are reportedly contemplating launches in neighboring Argentina and Brazil, where cities are plagued with similar personal safety concerns. “Suspicious” looking people, beware.


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