February 08, 2011 | Javier Ruiz

Shortcomings of Online Crime Mapping

The crime mapping initiative at Police.uk has generated an unprecedented debate on the merits of online crime mapping. Issues have been raised about the accuracy of the maps, the privacy implications and the labelling of communities as criminals. 

However, there has been very little debate as to the actual effectiveness of the website from the perspective of law enforcement, either by helping people collaborate with police or any other mechanism that has been proven elsewhere. This kind of initiatives in UK tend to take its cue from the US, where this type of websites contain much more detailed information, including registered sex offenders with photographs.

It is easy to see how mapping and use of data is useful for police, but what is less clear is the value of opening the data for public websites to help reducing crime or catching those responsible for the incidents reported on those websites.

We asked Christopher Bruce - president of the International Association of Crime Analysts - for his views on the topic and what he thought about the UK site:

This is definitely an issue worthy of debate, and it sounds like you're having a better discussion in the UK than we have had in the US. Perhaps some of our police agencies offer online crime mapping tools that are more "advanced" than the ones on Police.uk, but they still struggle with the same fundamental issues.

Ultimately, any information-sharing initiative like this should have, at its core, a set of outcomes that the initiative hopes to achieve. What do we want people to do with this information? Then, with these outcomes in mind, we must ask whether the initiative provides enough information, or the right type of information, to achieve them.

For instance, advocates of these measures usually say that they want the public to be able to see where the hot spots are and take steps to prevent their own victimization. So what information would a typical citizen need to prevent victimization?

Let's use burglary as an example. A citizen logs into a mapping web site and finds that her neighborhood is a hot spot for burglary. She wants to try to prevent this crime from happening at her house. What should she do? This is where online crime mapping technologies generally fall short.

To truly inform prevention, the data would have to tell her things like

  1. how the burglars are typically entering the residences; 
  2. at what times of day; and 
  3. what they are stealing.

"Robbery" is another good example. With no distinction made even between commercial and individual robbery, let alone situational factors, types of weapons, victim profiles, and so on, it's hard to know whether a resident should or should not be concerned about a large dot at the end of his street.

Perhaps the goal is to inform citizen watch groups, so that they can lookout for suspicious activity or potential offenders. But again the same issues apply. What do citizen watch groups need to do these things? Situational variables, offender descriptions, and so on. In technical terms, these systems rarely provide enough attribute data along with the visual representation.

"Violent crime" might be the most stark example from thePolice.uk site. A citizen's reaction to this data would and should varyenormously depending on whether it represents domestic violence, gangviolence, or random street violence, but the site does not provide anycontextual information. Nor do many in the U.S.

In this sense, I believe there is some validity to concerns over cost vs. benefit. There are negative side-effects to this type of data sharing, including cost in public pounds or dollars, loss of privacy, increase in citizen fear, and trouble for property dealers. To me, these downsides are acceptable if they are balanced by positive outcomes. I just question whether those positive outcomes are achievable with the depth of data these sites typically provide.

Actually, we should question whether the outcomes are fully achievable no matter how much data is provided. By putting raw data on the web, police agencies essentially ask citizens to be their own crime analysts: to discern meaningful patterns and trends within the dots.

Naturally, the average citizen can probably identify the most obvious patterns and such, but police forces employ analysts full time to scan, analyze, and interpret this raw data. Yet, rarely do online crime mapping sites attempt to synthesize the information produced by their full-time analysts. A good online crime mapping initiative would not only provide the raw data with a full set of variables; it would also find a way to integrate public versions of the internal reports on patterns, trends, hot spots, and problems that the agency's analysts are no doubt producing every day.

The ultimate problem with these implementations in the US is that they tend to be technology-driven rather than outcome-driven. Police administrators are razzle-dazzled by a salesman who shows them pretty colours and cool little symbols. But rarely does the police agency bother to develop a real strategic plan for this data-sharing. A strategic plan would ask the right questions about outcomes and then find the specific technologies needed to achieve them.

I don't mean to sound bleak, though. Initiatives like this are generally a good start. With the infrastructure in place, the police can offer more data, better data, and additional analysis if they so choose. For instance, clicking on one of the dots brings up a little pop-up window that shows the counts of crime in each category. There is no reason (except by current policy) that this pop-up window couldn't offer more detail as to the characteristics of those crimes. There is no technological reason that the maps could not be accompanied by relevant links to alerts and bulletins that provide more detailed information about patterns and trends. People just have to demand these things.

Finally, to my knowledge there has been no scholarly evaluation of the effects of these web sites on either public perception of crime or crimeprevention. This is something that both our governments should probably invest in.

Conferences, such as the US National Institute of Justice Crime Mapping conference (the next one is in Miami in April), and crime analysis conferences, should also consider this topic. These conferences are generally for academics and analysts, who use geographic information systems (GIS) to create more advanced thematic maps and run complex spatial statistics to identify hot spots, predict future crimes, inform resource deployment, and so on. You rarely see discussions of online citizen-based crime mapping at these conferencessimply because it's too basic; there's no real analysis involved. It is something we should probably discuss more because the implications are complicated even if the use of data is simple.

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