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When Government Transparency Risks Reinforcing Racist Stereotypes and Residential Segregation

Thomas Craemer
PAQ, Vol. 45 No. 1, 51-78 (2021)

Transparency requires that online government information be both numerically accurate and ‘cognitively accessible’ to members of the public. This paper provides a normative critique of various crime-data presentation formats informed by the literature on cognitive biases with regard to quantitative information. The analysis finds that interactive crime maps often apply (1) relative scaling, (2) arbitrary rate-magnification, (3) context-free absolute numbers, (4) ratios of small proportions, and (5) wrong baselines of comparison. These formats risk portraying non-White and/or Hispanic urban areas as ‘high crime’ in absolute rather than relative terms. This may discourage cautious (White) individuals from visiting, doing business in, or relocating to such neighborhoods, thus reinforcing residential segregation. Proportional scaling may provide an easy solution: In 2017, New York City emerges as a safe zone with regard to violent crime. Proportional scaling is easy to implement and it may help prevent inadvertent reinforcement of racist stereotypes and residential segregation.

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