Crowdsourced, technology-driven and visually compelling. Not words you'd typically associate with crime reporting in the Caribbean. But that could soon change as one tech entrepreneur based in Georgetown, Guyana is taking a fresh approach to the country's crime problems.
Meet Vijay Datadin, the main player behind Guyana Crime Reports, the country's newest data journalism website, which adds a combination of GIS mapping and crowdsourcing to traditional crime news reporting.
"You see police in Guyana and across the region calling for public assistance in fighting crime. They've never particularly mentioned that this was the kind of help they wanted or needed, but this was what I knew I could do to help. So I decided to just do it," he said.
The website is part news aggregator, making it a good one-stop source for various crime reports related to Guyana, published in local and international news media. Citizens can also submit crime reports through a form on the website, although those reports are treated slightly differently from the ones aggregated from traditional media sources.
"Particularly when these reports are made anonymously, we follow up with some sort of verification exercise, especially if the report in question could damage to someone's name, reputation or character," Datadin said.
"But reports from the media have a certain amount of verification built into them because there's a journalist and/or editor involved in that publication process, so those are simply aggregated."
Enhancing Public Debate
Red Spider is considering forging informal relationships directly with journalists who share their interest in improving the way that crime is reported in Guyana. The aim, Datadin explained, is not to competewith old media companies but to enhance the essential news service that they provide.
"We're not a news service, and we will never be in the business of breaking news. At times we're first to break a story, and that's almost accidental."
For Datadin, old and new media share a common goal. They exist not just to distribute information but to help concerned readers make sense of large amounts of information over time. Ans he takes seriously the responsibility to help readers and followers to understand how local incidents of crime fit into a larger national picture.
"As a citizen of the country, it would be to my benefit if crime went down. So I'm doing this not for any immediate commercial benefit but because I think it needed to be done. There needs to be a public conversation about crime, a conversation based not only on opinion but on facts, one that affords a more reasoned and inclusive debate about factors that cause crime nad the policies that can help curb it," he said.
"I think that with a more informed public, we can have a better conversation about what we should do about crime," he added, conceding that the site has taken only early evolutionary steps toward that goal.
The ultimate objective, he says, is to have a positive impact not just on public discourse but on public policy.
"We made soft approaches to the Guyana Police Force and the Ministry of Home Affairs," he said.
Mapping Crime Data
Datadin holds a postgraduate Masters degree in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) from Edinburgh University, Scotland. Plus, the word 'data' is literally in his name! So the fact that Guyana Crime Reports relies heavily on maps to visually represent the spread and scope of crime incidence really shouldn't come as a surprise.
"Maps help readers to see exactly where one incident took place," he said.
By making the crime maps public, Guyana Crime Reports effectively creates an equal opportunity for anyone seeking to understand how crime is trending both in their area and nationally.
"Both the public and the Home Affairs officials can review the map and detect trends in a particular area or nationally. You can see not just what happened recently but what has been happening over time."
Building Digital Journalism
By using maps to visualise crime data, Guyana Crime Reports has already set a significant precedent for digital journalism in the region. Audiences across the region would benefit greatly if more Caribbean newsrooms added maps to their arsenal of storytelling tools.
Crime maps are a powerful communication tool, giving audiences a quick grasp of the bigger picture without requiring them to know the (sometimes gory) details of every incident.
Because maps impart understanding visually, they allow crime reporters can attract a different kind of reader, one who may be less inclined to...read. And any way you look at it, that's still good news.
Speaking of maps
One quick side note as a footer to this piece about maps. If you're wondering, Guyana is actually not an island at all but a South American country bordered by Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname. But it is a member of the Caribbean Community, Caricom.