The police and press, usually uneasy bedfellows (see the fifth season of The Wire), have turned to crowd-sourcing in an attempt to solve a series of rapes and assaults that has left authorities in four states baffled. It's probably the largest crime to be tracked via Google Maps so far, and, if successful, it will act as a blueprint for future three-way collaborations between law enforcers, the fourth estate, and the public. But, given the whole innocent-until-proven-guilty concept, could the concept lead to lynch mobs taking justice into their own hands?
Many of Google's tools are already being used by police and citizens alike to solve crimes—most notably Earth, Street View, and Maps—and they're certainly a staple of online news sources. However, the WaPo stopped short of allowing its readers to add their own input to the maps and urged anyone with additional information to contact the relevant police forces, wary, perhaps, of how the Internet can be policed by vigilantes—right or wrong.
The designer behind the Washington Post's special report, Kat Downs, spoke to Innovative Interactivity about how she organized the story, which included a table with date, location, weapon, and whether the attacker's DNA was found at the crime scene (it was present at 12 of the 17 attacks). "It worked on two levels," she said. All the data was there, so it was a deep information experience for people who wanted that (police, crime watchers, or neighbors or community members), but it was also simple and engaging enough to interest people who knew nothing about this story and were encountering it for the first time."
The Washington Post also commissioned a cartographer to produce an interactive map which enabled readers to click on each of the crime scenes to be taken straight to the relevant page. And then there's the video, which includes interviews with the two reporters, Josh White and Maria Glod, as well as quotes from some of the detectives involved in the 17 cases.
Downs puts the success of the report down to the investigative powers of her colleagues, White and Glod. "I can't emphasize enough the importance of having people in the field who value multi-media and realize what kind of impact it can have," she said. And, unlike traditional news reports on the Web, the serial rapist graphic can be easily updated should there be any developments to the story.