This topic has been on my mind quite a bit lately as we’ve been working on a system to automatically publish information on the calls we (the North Karelia Rescue Department) get. I was originally planning on writing in Finnish about it, but the story (via) on Seattle Post-Intelligencer on how the Seattle FD changed its feed to prevent Seattle911.com from automatically displaying call locations on a map spurred me to write about in English first.
While I, as a geotagging and rescue geek would love to follow locations of various emergencies in real time, the privacy advocate in me cringes. It is true that the locations of calls received are public information in a democratic society, but is an accurate location more important than the victims right to privacy? The security concern cited in the article (and used as the reasons why the feed was changed) are bogus to me. After all, if it is public information anyone can get access to it if motivated enough.
The main problem in it all is when public disclosure trumps the privacy of victims. In Finland, privacy has been valued to a greater extent than public disclosure. This means that all publicly available feeds on accident locations are specified only at the county level (see for example 112info.fi for rescue department call reasons and locations or the calls on a map). Neither of these feeds include police or ambulance calls.
However, in interest of public disclosure we do provide a real-time way of alerting journalists of the types of calls rescue departments get and the addresses to which units are responding to. This way, the public can get the information on what has happened without flagrant disregard to the victims privacy.
And, as in most western countries, journalists and the law have their own ways of figuring out when the identity of the victims is important enough for it to be a public matter.
As geo-geek I would like to see more accurate locations than the county/city-level. Open access to bounding-areas of geographic areas (e.g. villages, suburbs etc.) would help give a more accurate representation of where emergencies occur without a clear breach of privacy. This way various tools could be created to evaluate the level of responsiveness needed from safety providers or how accident prone a neighbourhood is to home buyers.