Seattle 911 Mashup Falls to Security Concerns

The API is only one half of a map mashup; the other half is the data being plotted on the map. In many cases, mashup makers do not own the data they’re mapping, but are using public (or at least publicly available) sources. This means that the data source’s availability is largely out of their control. Theoretically, at least, the data may disappear at some point. Even so, I don’t think anyone could have predicted what would happen to, which used the data feed from Seattle 911 phone calls.

The fire department changed the feed from text to an image, breaking the mashup. The data was still available, just harder to repurpose. The department cited security concerns, but that’s simply risible. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine how terrorists could make practical use of such 911 data. (I don’t buy their rationale that pinpointing emergency crews puts them at risk: by that logic, don’t use sirens.) For another, the data is not only still available, but it’s possible to convert the image to useable text with a single line of code. But this is how bureaucracies — generally risk-averse, secretive and self-important — think, and these latent tendencies have only been encouraged post-9/11. Security through obscurity.

Either make it usable or take the data down; either it’s a risk, full stop, or it isn’t. Easily side-stepped half-measures just make you look foolish. Or did you think that your data wouldn’t be used?

The story was picked up by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; see also J. LeRoy, Ed Parsons, Google Maps Mania, Slashgeo and Slashdot.