Article: Let’s get crime mapping

From The Times, June 26, 2008
Crime mapping: we can’t afford to ignore it
By Heather Brooke

It works in America – and could help to improve crime clear-up rates dramatically

Most police forces in American cities provide the public with a list of all crimes, broken down by street or city block. You might read of a robbery on the 1600 block of 9th Avenue at 11pm for example, or three assaults in close proximity on Tuesday.

When I was a crime reporter in America, I was able to view all police incident reports, jail booking records and every warrant signed by the magistrate. I had some privileges as a reporter, but all this information was considered to belong to the public. The logs can be found in local newspapers or online and give the enterprising citizen the ability to build their own crime maps such as: www.spotcrime.com and http://chicago.everyblock.com/crime/. People use these maps to band together to pressure their police to tackle problems. As most police chiefs are directly elected, solutions are quickly found.

The police in Britain, however, feel they “own” crime data and the public have no right to know what is happening. Yet access to criminal incident data is vital, as it allows the public to judge the effectiveness of the police and crime policies. In a void of ignorance, a politician or police chief can claim anything he likes about crime: that binge drinking is endemic or under control, that muggings are increasing or falling, that policing is working or failing.

The police can also hide their failings. Northumbria police claimed that only three crimes of note had occurred one weekend in May, yet a freedom of information request revealed that, in fact, there were more than 1,000 incidents, 161 of them violent.

I asked the Metropolitan Police last summer if they could publish this data, if not by street then at least by postal code. No. The Met’s excuse was that it was technologically impossible (which I doubt), and in any event, “had it been possible to produce this data, it would have been likely rejected as a breach of the Data Protection Act”.

Shamefully, the Information Commissioner has objected to the plan of Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, to allow people to know what crime happens in their street, arguing that it would breach the privacy of the victims of crime. But the Data Protection Act does not prohibit personal information being disclosed. Its purpose is to ensure that such disclosure is for a legitimate purpose.

Yet again a policy that would be of great public benefit is being blocked by an unthinking, fetishistic attitude towards privacy. A balance can easily be struck between the privacy of those reporting crimes and the overall safety of citizens. The only people made safer by the current policy of wilfully enforced ignorance are poorly performing police chiefs.

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3 Responses to “Article: Let’s get crime mapping”

  1. Elizabeth Woodworth says:

    “But the Data Protection Act does not prohibit personal information being disclosed. Its purpose is to ensure that
    such disclosure is for a legitimate purpose.”

    To continue this sentence accurately, its purpose is to ensure disclosure for a legitimate purpose where it is
    necessary and where that disclosure is not unwarranted by reason of prejudice to the legitimate interests of the
    subject of the request. What is required is a balancing test that is sometimes very complex. That is why the ICO is
    needed to consider such issues objectively.

  2. Great article, I agree wholeheartedly. Crime data is of serious and legitimate public interest and should be freely available, not hidden and protected. I thought you might be interested in a Northern Ireland Crime Map we created last week http://www.banjax.com/sandbox/crime/ – this used publicly accessible data on annual crime statistics by local ward level. Unfortunately it only goes up to 2006/07 as 2007/08 figures “are being prepared and will not be available until the end of the summer”. This despite having a summary published in a PSNI newsletter delivered to every home in Northern Ireland!

  3. Colin says:

    An interesting twist in the US crime mapping story is that some of the companies paid by the police departments to produce crime maps are preventing commercial access to the data. Our company, SpotCrime.com, has been asked to stop accessing public data because of the terms of service of the contractor hired to inform the public.
    It is SpotCrime’s contention that the data should be distributed freely without any additional filters or constraints.
    While improbable, it will never be konwn if the information about the burglary a week before the horrific murder of the French students had been publicly distributed that the event could have been prevented.
    We at SpotCrime.com hope to create positive consequences by informing the public of the crime incidents around them.

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