UCrime Takes on Campus Offenses

Aug 12, 2008

At one time or another most people have checked police precinct statistics for their new neighborhood or looked at Family Watchdog to determine if that odd neighbor is, in fact, a registered sex offender. But it can be hard to track down reliable and easy to understand information about crimes on college and university campuses.

Entire cities unto themselves, campuses have confusing address systems, transient populations, and their own public safety departments, making it difficult for students, parents, and faculty to marry public crime information with the geographical layout of the school. A new service called UCrime.com has set out to change that.

UCrime is a free service launched on August 4 that maps crimes on college and university campuses; users view the date, time, location, and type of crime and have the option to comment on incidents as well as link to source information. Information is gleaned from police departments, campus safety departments, and newspapers, among other sources and data is shared with SpotCrime.com, another of CEO Colin Drane’s ventures, which maps crimes in 130 metropolitan areas.

"UCrime was kind of a secondary thought from SpotCrime," explains Drane. "We realized there was an interest in having university crimes mapped and the information for universities is fairly robust because of something called the Clery Act."

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, requires all United States colleges and universities to disclose campus crime information. The federal law was named for Jeanne Ann Clery, a 19-year old Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in her dorm room in 1986. Following her death, it was discovered that there had been 38 violent crimes on campus during the previous three years, but students had not been notified; Clery’s parents and other campus crime victims then campaigned for legislation and the law was enacted in 1990.

What the Clery Act does not necessarily do is establish a geographic pattern of incidents. Drane sees UCrime as helpful for faculty, visitors, enrolled students, high schoolers making college-selection decisions, students considering off-campus housing options, or parents interested in monitoring safety at the school their child attends.

"I think it could be particularly useful for grad students who don't have campus housing and aren't familiar with the area," adds Emily Hatch, a law student at Syracuse University, which has a fairly robust public safety system in place already, including daily incident reports and an "Orange Alert" rapid notification system for emergencies, but does not map those incidents.

UCrime debuted with information on 101 colleges and universities—a number Drane expects to jump to 200 by the end of the month. "Now that we’ve automated the system and figured out methodologies it’s much easier. The process is very difficult but we’ve figured out how to do it," he says, adding that population size and access to data are major factors in determining what schools are added to UCrime. "Ultimately we’re going to go where we can get the data."

UCrime can send users a daily alert via email or mobile device that provides a roundup of incidents and can also provide information via the social networking site Facebook if a user has affiliated themselves with a school that UCrime tracks. Drane says Facebook was an easy choice because not only is it growing so quickly, but "it’s where most of the university students were gravitating."

Drane does not view UCrime as a crisis alert system. "It’s more of a reporting capability," he says. "There are other systems in place, that universities are paying for, that are more likely to solve that situation. It’s very difficult to notify everybody [in the event of an emergency]."

As for helping with unsolved crimes, Drane says he’s not ruling anything out. "We very much prefer that people call 911 and talk to the police, but maybe this becomes another avenue for reporting." Drane gives an example from his personal life of how this type of information can be helpful, explaining that in his neighborhood people began to have their drainpipes stolen. As police were working on the case, it was also important for the area residents to be aware of the ongoing situation. "Our hope is that UCrime helps increase awareness. If people notice a pattern maybe there is what I would term a ‘positive unintended consequence.’ "

UCrime has hit one or two minor reporting snags, such as an incident that listed the location of the arrest, not the location of the crime. Such errors are rare and can be easily fixed, says Drane; "there exists an error rate, but the accuracy level is very, very high."