Annu Subramanian: How do we know we are safe?

Just a few years ago, our school would have been applauded for its commitment to providing the GW community with safety statistics. Its number-heavy spreadsheets that are updated for the public once a year disclose the number of crimes that happened on campus as well as the nature of these crimes.

Today, those same spreadsheets mean virtually nothing.

These days, publishing a list of figures online and calling it transparency is nominal, at best. This digital age and our WikiLeaks generation have forced the parameters of what is considered transparency to evolve, allowing for more institutional accountability and equal access to important statistics.

Transparency today means context, availability and digestibility. And before we know it, every institution will be expected to provide information in relatable, more understandable formats, or they will be accused of intentionally keeping information veiled. New technology has begun facilitating democracy at the federal and corporate levels, but we do not see that same commitment to transparency in higher education.

As technology advances to put data in context, number-clogged spreadsheets are no longer the most effective way to keep the GW community safe and aware.

GW, we have a duty and an unprecedented opportunity here.

Through a University-wide effort to make its data more salient and contextual, GW can be in the vanguard of a movement that is holding institutions accountable and, in the process, drastically improving them. And it can begin with those cumbersome number sets we already have.

Primed against crime

Crime data are public, largely unequivocal subject matters in which we are all invested – information that requires maximum transparency and demystification.

GW currently discloses campus crime information in compliance with the Clery Act, overseen by the U.S. Department of Education. The mandate requires that universities quickly share information about campus crimes that remain a threat to the community, publish an annual report of on-campus crimes and keep detailed accounts of on-campus crimes from the past three years. Thanks to the Clery Act, the GW community is informed of recent crimes and can always access past statistics for crimes. Additionally, the entirety of the crime log is printed on the UPD website. But while these efforts to increase awareness are an effective step in the right direction, there is much more to be done.

I spoke with Bill Allison, the editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation – a nonprofit organization that uses technology to increase federal transparency – about how to make crime statistics more understandable.

“You need contextual perspective to understand how these things change over time,” he said. “What was it like this week? Last week? Last year? Where is it happening? There may be patterns to crime and students should have that data.”

Putting this information in a readable format can be a matter of writing the right computer programs, because the data is already public. A campus map that is updated frequently to display where crimes occur, along with the nature of said crimes, discloses more than an e-mail Crime Alert. Online calendars can alert viewers to when crimes are most frequent. GPS tracking of the areas adjacent to establishments with liquor licenses can explain whether they actually have higher incidents of crime. UPD will have an easy-to-read series of applications that can guide where to dispatch the most personnel. Students can follow UPD on Twitter for breaking updates on crime.

Through providing statistics in context, everyone benefits.

Brand: Candid

If GW launches a program focused on disclosing information in a more easily digestible, usable way, it will be the first of its kind. Experts who work toward increasing federal and corporate transparency note that this model has not yet been crafted specifically to improve higher education. It will tell the entire community that GW cares about our safety. To be at the forefront of a phenomenon as it unfolds is a risk, indeed, but it’s nowhere as grave as the inevitable advantages of increased awareness. GW can be the model for all other universities to follow regarding increased data accessibility.

A shift toward increased transparency will project GW as a school with a fierce dedication to the truth – regardless of whether or not it is pretty. A trademark of honesty and visibility will yield success for two major reasons: A public acknowledgement of what requires improvement will lead people to step up and facilitate that improvement, and the entire GW community will be receptive to a better understanding of the University’s safety.

Electing to avoid putting public data in a more usable format has only one inherent hazard: It will force the facts – even the ugly ones – to be available and understandable to more people. But if our school genuinely stands by an educated GW community, there is no question that it will stand by the creation of campus-related transparency technology.

Making it happen

After speaking with professors and university administrators – many of whom expressed support for the creation of such a website – the principal concern was that this program would monopolize too many university resources. Fortunately, our student body is well-versed in technology and policy that this program doesn’t require loads of capital or investment from administration.

“Students can be pushed to not only use, but build their own technology,” DJ Saul, GW alumnus and the director of Open Innovation at iStrategyLabs, a D.C.-based social enterprise and marketing firm that supports the creation of democracy mobile applications, said. “Student involvement in creating these apps would expand their networks and would be a great resume builder.”

Computer programmers, engineers, politicos, mathematicians, journalists and business students all can get involved in making this project a reality. Competitions on campus can be held for students to propose the most creative applications. Journalists, with more access to usable statistics, can more efficiently report on university proceedings, which policy wonks can more efficiently evaluate.

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Making crime statistics on campus more prominent is not just an additional task for the University – it’s a matter of safety. If we have the technology, or the potential for technology, to have crime data reflect important information contextually and comprehensively, it is an unforgivable oversight to not act. But if we do begin this process, GW will be the model for other universities nationwide as they are tasked with responding to the democratization of information through technology.

A more educated campus is one better positioned to improve itself in both the short and long term. But education takes context and clarity. So, GW, kiss those cumbersome spreadsheets goodbye.

The writer, a sophomore majoring in journalism, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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