April 8, 2012
The details on the technology used are a bit sparse (even the “About” page of the site indicates a need to “Fill this in…“). It appears that the project team behind SF Crimespotting designed its own mapping platform called “Modest Maps” (new window) based on a framework of Adobe Flash and Python script. Via this platform, map tiles from the third party developer Cloudmade (new window) are tiled geographically. Crimespotting‘s team boasts that this framework allows the map to be fully explorable, an improvement on previous attempts (such as CrimeWatch) which were more limited in map interactivity.
An important motivation and feature of the Crimespotting project is browser accessibility. The platform is accessible on more browsers than the earlier CrimeWatch, and “gracefully degrades” to preserve functionality even on those browsers without the latest and greatest features.
Unfortunately for many Apple users, the interface does require Flash. For those users, Crimespotting offers an alternative method of browsing through a database for static maps in image form. While this is a valid alternative, the interface and experience is seriously disappointing after using the full Flash interface — even forgiving the fact that at time of writing the crime database main page reads “DB Error: DB Error: unknown error”.
Interface with Flash
Interface Without Flash
An excellent feature to the website is the accessibility of well-formatted data for use in spreadsheets for other uses. With no cost, registration, or authentification, users can fetch data via HTTP GET. The format of the data, including data types and metadata, is given on the API tab of the CrimeSpotting website.
CrimeSpotting Timeframe Interface
The timeframe interface of the CrimeSpotting website is good, but features a few things which I might change if I had the technological know-how to do so.
The Time of Day interface is excellent, and very user friendly. The clock itself would have been sufficient for any purpose, but the decision to pre-load TOD configurations for time frames over which a user may be interested is a nice touch and shows a desire to take extra steps to make the experience better.
The date interface is slightly less intuitive. For starters, the most obvious indication of the data being shown is the large dropdown menus at the bottom left (as shown, March 2010). In actuality, the time frame being shown is in smaller font along the timeline itself. This confusing is further compounded by the fact that the crime data in the system doesn’t even go back far enough to cover the default date of this historical data drop down menu, so using it leads to blank bars along every date. Perhaps the designers are planning to add crime data as far back as 2010, but until they do so it is misleading to allow users to go back that far. Similarly, the ability to track dates in the future is pointless, as they have not teamed up with those weird jacuzzi aliens from Minority Report to predict crimes which have not yet occurred. Finally, the timeline limits date windows to 28 days. This may be a technological decision, but it seems to me that it would be useful to be able show total number of crimes within a given month, almost all of which exceed this 28 day window. In summary, the date timeline could use some improvement by letting users show a greater number of days at a time, but by disallowing them from viewing dates in the distant past or future for which there is no data available.
CrimeSpotting Crime Type Interface
The interface to show types of crime is excellent. It is very easy to check/uncheck types of crimes, and the show all/hide all buttons are added to make the process even easier. Mousing over each type adds a highlighted buffer around each incident, making quick browsing of crime types simple even without hiding all other types.
Improvements on the interface may be to add check marks for each grouping of crimes (i.e. red, blue, green) along with their category descriptions (currently in small type below the map) so that one might easily show only one category of crime.
Another improvement would be to include incidents of sexual crime on the map. There is probably a legal or moral reason why crimes such as rape were not included, so I understand their omission. However, if I were a woman in the San Francisco area planning a route to work I would be far more concerned with being raped than being arson-ed or having my peace disturbed, so perhaps a workaround of highly anonymous data could be used to show incidents of rape without any identifying information about the victim.
Finally, the location interface has one seriously annoying bug: when moused over the map, scrolling up or down on the mousewheel zooms in and out of the map AND scrolls up and down on the page. By doing both at once, neither functionality is useful, and the user is forced to use slower more tedious methods to zoom and scroll on the page. (Note that this issue was observed using Firefox; other browsers may perform better.)
SF CrimeSpotting is an excellent website which accomplishes its goals very well. The only real gripes I could make about the system are its flash dependence, slightly confusing timeline, and frustrating mousewheel integration.
The features I would hope to draw from the site for my own project would be the visual clarity/simplicity of the interfaces, the openness of the platform for collaboration with other projects, and the small extra features which are not necessary for functionality, but add to the user experience and demonstrate the designer’s concern for the end-user.