From The Guardian, Thursday July 17, 2008
Met keeps crime statistics under lock and key
By Heather Brooke
The UK is one of the most watched societies in the world, yet the police are loath to release crime data
We may finally be let into the great secret of just how safe – or unsafe – we are as momentum builds to publish a breakdown of criminal incidents in London, though the battle is far from over. The Metropolitan Police plans to publish some data as early as next month. However, initial indications are that only property crimes (not violent crime) will be revealed, and that the data will be aggregated into large, artificial geographic regions called “super-output” areas.
I’ve long campaigned for the release of criminal incident data broken down by street, having lived in the US where it was easily available. I worked as a crime reporter, and not only were anonymised crime incidents published weekly in the local newspaper (and now online), but as a reporter I could go through individual incident reports down at the station.
Knowing what crimes happen and where is important for several reasons. First, people want to know how safe (or unsafe) they are. They need accurate and detailed data if they are to form an opinion of the safety of their neighbourhood. When they know what’s happening, they are in a better position to help or support the police. They are also better able to hold the police to account. This is perhaps what the police fear most, but it is a misplaced fear according to Richard Pope, the creator of civic website planningalerts.com (a site that mines planning applications to local authorities and provides alerts by postcode) and groupsnearyou.com.
“The police are coming at this the wrong way,” Pope says. “They’re scared that people are going to use it against them, but it could really help the police.” A few years ago he had the idea of building a civic website using crime data mapped out and accompanied by a discussion forum where neighbours could talk about problems in their area and liaise with their local police officer. “But we couldn’t get any raw data,” he says, so the project never got off the ground.
It seems ludicrous that, sitting in my flat in London, I can look online to see what’s happening on a street in Chicago and yet know nothing about what’s happening outside my front door. However Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, has said that releasing crime data from the grip of the police into the hands of the public would violate victims’ privacy.
The Met also cites privacy as a reason not to release location specific crime data. Yet the Data Protection Act does not prohibit personal information being disclosed, even if one considers anonymised crime reports “personal”; and Boris Johnson’s pledge was only ever to publish crime data by street level, not by exact address. The law’s purpose is to ensure that disclosure is for a legitimate purpose. State-mandated ignorance benefits no one.
Crimes are not a great secret, particularly not violent crimes – such as the spate of stabbings in the UK in recent months – though without access to the raw data, how can we know how and where it’s rising? Pope thinks the main problem is that the police are not technically savvy, citing an encounter at a meeting between locals, the council and the police where the Met admitted it couldn’t provide incident detail broken down by area – so the council ended up paying the Met just to get this information.
In my own freedom of information request made to the Met in July last year for a breakdown of crime by postcode, I encountered this, too: “It is not possible to produce crime data based upon the first three digits of the postcode,” the Met said, adding that “crime data is recorded against the BOCU or borough which, under Home Office counting rules, it was allocated against rather than the address of the crime. This allocation is the method against which crime is presented in most instances in a geographic format.”
Yet Brian Paddick, a former deputy assistant commissioner of the Met, has gone on record saying the police already use crime mapping data themselves. So how exactly do the police record crime?
Pope says that any technical issues are surmountable. “The Met use GIS, at least for some crimes, and every incident will be logged down to street name. Technically, putting it on a map is easy.”
Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news technology at The New York Times, has plenty of experience of turning government data into useful public tools. “Almost every police force I know of, even in the smallest town in the States, uses GIS as a way of analysing crime. It’s a very powerful way for police departments to spot trends and patterns. It’s been proven to be one of the most powerful tools in crime fighting. I find it impossible to believe that it hasn’t made its way into the UK.
“Are they really saying they lack the technological skills to convert that information into an anonymised data feed? I find that difficult to believe and, if true, that says a lot about the department and the people working there.” So it’s either a failure of police capabilities – or of willingness to inform the public. We may find out which next month.
The facts on crime data
Immediacy: You can’t wait months to get information. You want to know immediately, at least within the week, when a crime happens. The Met plans to publish only monthly.
Proximity: The data must be broken down to a geographic area people understand, such as street or postcode. The Met plans to publish data by “super-output areas”. A super-output area comprises an area about the size of five council wards. Richard Pope says: “These will be no use to people whatsoever.”
Detail: Personal information such as names and exact addresses can be stripped but we need to know the type of crime, when it happened and where. Currently the Met plans only to publish what it calls “tier two” offences, which include burglary, robbery, theft and handling stolen goods. This is useful, but serious and violent crime is what most concerns the public.