Pilot Summary

Pilot Summary: Boston’s 911 Data

The Boston 911 Data project was developed by faculty and graduate students at Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice. In researching the possible uses of Boston’s publicly available 911 call data, this project team developed recommendations addressing not only the ethical use and reuse of these types of “big data” sets, but also the ambiguities and inconsistencies within the dataset itself, and the ways those require contextualization to ensure responsible use of the data. For example, the Boston Police Department provides summary information with 911 call data, identifying the time, place, and nature of interactions with police at the site of the reported call. The time and place in which a call is made, however, may not accurately reflect where the crime itself took place. A business owner reporting an overnight robbery at their business would result in a 911 call with a correct location but incorrect time for the event being reported.  

Although these guidelines were developed to address the particularities of a specific dataset, the project builds on existing research into the ethical use of large public datasets for research. Some projects are focused on developing specific tools for analysis and policy applications (such as the Boston Area Research Initiative), and others such as Data USA provide multiple entry points into their datasets that allow for interpretation and use.

The recommendations suggested by the initial research conducted in the fall of 2018 provide insight into the opportunities and limitations of large datasets and the tools used to analyze them. Central to the project’s concerns were the ethical and methodological considerations of working with the Boston 911 data. The recommendations here suggest ways to appropriately craft research questions while acknowledging and working with the limitations of specific datasets. These recommendations will also inform the architecture of an ethics advisory board within the BRC, and pose important questions about how to consider the potential for use and re-use of BRC data.