During my Jennifer Caldwell fellowship, I assisted the Center in researching local surveillance patterns. Our primary focus involved the analysis of data derived from automated license plate readers (ALPRs). The data comes from information requests submitted by a previous research team at the Center. The goal of our research was to understand what, if any, patterns were present in the data as to inform the policy and advocacy discussion of surveillance in Seattle.
I enjoyed being a researcher at the Center for Human Rights because it involves transforming complex datasets and spreadsheets into accessible and engaging information for our audience. ALPRs are designed to operate discreetly, so it can be difficult to gauge their prevalence. However, I believe it is crucial to comprehend the extent of surveillance in our daily lives and to be mindful of the associated risks. Further, in the context of emerging technologies, transparency is invaluable because it is oftentimes the only means of seeing into the actions of our government and its utilization of technology. In turn, this sort of research can bolster calls for increased governmental accountability. My work with the Center was so exciting because our project was designed to promote such awareness.
Specifically, we combined surveillance records from the Seattle Police Department (SPD) with geospatial data, enabling us to create a series of informative maps. Each of these maps provided valuable insights into surveillance patterns, offering a clear picture of which Seattle neighborhoods were most and least frequently under SPD surveillance. Additionally, our maps depicted the routes followed by SPD patrol cars, offering a visual representation of their patrol strategies and daily activities. We also examined whether there were any significant relationships between surveillance and demographic data, such as race and economic status. In the line of promoting awareness and accessibility, we made sure all our graphics and findings were both available in a report form
Aside from turning raw data into readily digestible maps, we also examined patterns of the license plate captures themselves. For example, we were able to see what times of day ALPRs were most active, as well as what license plates were captured most frequently. This finding was especially valuable because it speaks to how a vehicle can be tracked and monitored throughout the city and, with such data being aggregated, how a person can have their daily routines tracked by the government.
I am so excited to see our maps live online, and to see the Center continue this research. I am looking forward to seeing where our project fits into that greater discussion of the state of surveillance in Washington!