Last month administration at the University of Florida made the decision to remove crime data dating back to 2016, only having the legally required past 60 days of crime data posted to their website. As a response, Zachary Carnell and Isabella Douglas, students of the UF College of Journalism, created a website called ufcrime.com to make crime data from 2016 to the present publicly available. I got the chance to interview Carnell, who developed the website, on why and how it was created, as well as what the data implies.
Q: What made you and Isabella decide to create the website?
A: Over the past couple of years, as I’ve been developing my skills as a journalist and computer programmer, I’ve become attracted to the idea of marrying those skills to create databases of public records for journalists. And you’re a journalist, so if you’ve ever spent any amount of time messing around with records requests, you’ll know it can sometimes be an inexplicably grueling process. So I was looking for opportunities to simplify and streamline that process for journalists. Isabella and I noticed that the export feature had been removed from the UF webpage for details on crimes committed on campus. That had always been useful for me as a student and a journalist. You can see trends in what crimes were committed and where. After finding out the data had been removed, we jumped on it and got to work on the website. It took a few months, and we’re happy with where it is now. But we definitely have plans for making it better.
Q: How do you plan on improving the website?
A: Something I’d like to do ahead of the fall semester is add a more robust filtering system so that it’s easier to see hotspots for specific types of crime over a specified time period. I already have a working prototype for that, so I think that’ll make the map a lot more powerful and useful for being able to see what specific crimes were committed at what specific places on campus.
Q: How were you able to get data from 2016?
A: Funnily enough, even though UF had removed the export feature and was displaying only the past 60 days of crimes, the website was still loading a file, sort of behind the scenes, that contained all the crime data going back to 2016. So essentially, without getting too technical, for every person using that website, there was a file being loaded from their database that included all this historical crime data, but UF had it set up so that it only displayed the past 60 days from that file. So in the underlying code, we were able to see this file being loaded in, so we just downloaded it. The vast majority of students and parents would have a hard time doing that, so removing the export button is still a big deal. I don’t think they expected anyone to be able to do that.
Q: How often is the website updated?
A: It’s hourly. We have it automated so every hour it checks if anything new was posted, then that’s put on the map. Unless it's a rare occasion where there's some unique address that hasn’t been reported before, then we might have to geocode it manually. But pretty much 99% of it is automated right now.
Q: Have you received a response from professors or UF’s administration?
A: The response from my professors has been great. They’ve all been supportive and think it’s cool. The dean of the journalism school, Hub Brown, has been really supportive. Initially, there were some concerns from UF administrators regarding how the website worked and, particularly, whether the website might be confused with the official UF crime log, so we added a disclaimer to address that. So they were ultimately cool with it.
Q: Based on your website's data, what are some of the most commonly committed crimes at UF in the past years?
A: One thing I wanna make clear is that at the end of the day, I’m a developer. I’m just making the data public for others to analyze. But I did throw a spreadsheet together just to take a look: crimes like theft, burglary, and larceny — consistently top the list. Narcotic violations are really common. I think that includes the use of alcohol, which would make sense on a college campus. Stalking and battery tend to be in the top ten or top five.
Q: Does your data highlight any specific areas of UF or buildings that attract a lot of crime?
A: Like I said, I’m a developer, not an analyst. So verify anything I say independently. I haven’t looked at every type of crime, but I think particularly around Fraternity Drive. I remember a report that came out a few years ago that showed something like a third of sexual assault cases tends to occur disproportionately around Fraternity Drive.
Q: Why do you think UF removed the crime data in the first place, only publicizing the legally required past 60 days?
A: The most objective answer is that we don’t really know for sure. I think UF said it was quote on quote “to ensure the information displayed is accurate and current,” at least that article where you heard about us kind of quoted them as saying that, which, if I try to charitably read between the lines, maybe they thought that having historical crime data available alongside recent crime data might cause people to get confused and conflate the two somehow? Question mark? But it’s worth acknowledging that these changes came after several consecutive years of increases in various types of crime including rape. It went from 10 in 2020, to 11 in 2021, to 22 in 2022. Maybe that’s what was going on, but we haven’t heard anything concrete.
Carnell made a spreadsheet detailing the number of charges made for different crimes every year on UF campus. This can be found here
Recent trends in crime on UF Campus:
- Rape: There have been 8 charges of rape on UF campus so far in 2023. With the 3 previous years holding 10, 11, and 22 charges of rape respectively, it means over 50 people on UF campus have been raped this decade.
- Battery: There have been over half as many battery charges so far in 2023 as there were in the entirety of 2022, with there being 20 charges so far this year and 38 charges last year.
- Stalking: There were 29 charges of stalking on UF campus last year and this year so far, there have been 28
- Petit Theft: Petit theft is the most commonly charged crime on UF campus with 77 charges so far this year and 134 cases totaled last year.