Chicago Tribune News Apps Team Launches ‘Crime in Chicago’ Data Project

It’s responsive, it’s overflowing with data and it’s beautiful. The most recent project from The Chicago Tribune news apps team, Crime in Chicago, is a glowing example of the power of data in telling stories — and helping readers find their own stories in context of the big picture.

The standalone app lets easily learn about “crime on your block, in your community, along your commute, and more.” You can type your address or select from a map your community of interest to see an extensive breakdown of crime reports for the most recent 30 days, crime type breakdowns, historic crime trends for the community and granular locations for crime (e.g. garages, alleys, grocery stores). In South Chicago, for example, most violent crimes happen on the sidewalk whereas most property crimes and quality of life crimes happen in apartments.  But you don’t just get a dump of data from a table — there are colorful, interactive charts that visually convey the information in an easily-digestible way.

The app also pulls in recent headlines about the community in a “coverage” section on the community’s detail page, providing extra context or details about crimes that have happened there.

There are a few little design surprises that I really like about this app — the small details that increase usability and functionality:

  • The data is constantly updated. One problem with a lot of data projects is they’re generated by one big dump of data — a snapshot of a moment in time — and rarely updated again (or updated infrequently). The Chicago Tribune’s crime app is updated daily, but also contains the longterm data going back to 2007. It’s an app that you could install on your phone and constantly refer to as a news source.
  • There’s a slick autocomplete on the dropdown menu. It’s a small detail, but an important one for serendipitous discovery. You shouldn’t necessarily expect users to remember names of all neighborhoods off the top of their heads. In a way, the dropdown serves as a browse feature, without the requirement of jumping to a “browse” page with a cumbersome list of links. It’s also useful for people outside of Chicago — who are not familiar with the area at all — to explore the app.
  • Navigation elements are fixed upon scroll. This is especially important for the tables in the app. Once you scroll beyond the table headers, the top row sticks to the top of your page so you always know which data each column corresponds to. It saves the user from scrolling back up and down — a small detail that is often frustrating for online tables.
  • Scrolling navigation, rather than tabs. The other place they used a fixed scroll is on the community detail page. Rather than using tab-based navigation where some content may be hidden by default, forcing the reader to take another click to discover, the navigation jumps you down to other parts of the page and dynamically updates the active selection as you scroll. It’s a nice touch.