By Andrew Elvish
The 21st century is shaping up to be the century of data. We are collecting more and better data than ever before. And the possible applications include everything from improved security and more efficient movement through public spaces to better allocation of resources and strategic planning. But, while access to this data can help improve our lives in truly meaningful ways, we are also facing new challenges about how to better collect, understand, and make use of it.
Security and policing are great examples of this. When you develop strategies based on data, you are likely to have smarter, more meaningful, and less invasive policies and systems. This leads to safer communities while at the same time giving citizens a sense of freedom and ease-of-movement. We don’t, after all, want to create an environment in which we forgo quality of life for crime prevention, particularly since they are not mutually exclusive.
But we have to be careful about how we approach the data. Simply having access to more data or covering our businesses, neighborhoods, and cities with cameras and sensors are not ends in and of themselves.
The importance of really understanding
Consider what happened to crime rates in the US in the last decade of the twentieth century. According to the FBI at the time, homicide in the US fell by 43% while violent and property crime decreased by 34% and 29%. One of the interesting things about the falling crime rate is that many, including high-ranking politicians and researchers, not only failed to anticipate it happening but, in fact, predicted the opposite. They had the information but did not make good use of it. They did not fully understand what their data was telling them.
As a result, it is not surprising that the majority of commentators got the root causes wrong. Despite being highly publicized at the time, we can now see that—statistically—the economy, changing demographics, and increased use of capital punishment had only a marginal impact on the decline. What did have a huge impact was increased police presence nation-wide.
Based on research originally published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, we now know that the increase in the number of police officers in the US over that decade explains between one-fifth and one-tenth of the decline. Research also tells us that providing more and better information to our police officers and first responders can have an even greater impact on reducing crime rates and improving community relations. So, what can we learn from this and how can we apply this knowledge to today?
Research also tells us that providing more and better information to our police officers and first responders can have an even greater impact on reducing crime rates and improving community relations.
Knowing more means doing better
The first thing to note is that the only way to determine what did and did not impact the falling crime rate was to look at and understand the actual data. If you have read Steven D. Levitt’s and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics, you know that our assumptions about cause and effect are frequently way off. This can have significant and negative impacts on decision-making and policy implementation.
When it comes to crime and crime rates, we are collecting more data than ever before. Just think about all the video footage—from private businesses, cell phones, body-worn cameras, and police dash-cams—that is being generated on a constant basis. With this footage, we have the potential to know and do more, particularly when it comes to investigating and prosecuting. And, with the right analytic tools, we can also move toward anticipating and preventing crime from happening in the first place.
Our experience in working with cities and police departments has shown us that providing first responders with clear and correlated data can help them take positive action. This leads to better relationships with the community, which, in turn, gives rise to an improved sense of security and freedom.
How can we get the most from the data we’re collecting?
Currently, the growing number of sensors and solutions capturing data can make it difficult to use information in meaningful ways, especially when dispatching emergency resources. Despite the increase in video footage, for example, many first responders still operate without a clear perspective on incidents. This can negatively impact both coordination and collaboration.
Organizations, including cities and law enforcement, have to figure out how to get the most from the data they are collecting. We have to start breaking down silos and correlating data. This means working with open architecture platforms that allow us to unify disparate systems into a single space. A decision support system (DSS) is a great place to start. By unifying public safety operations through situational awareness and the proper dissemination of information, a DSS can help cities, organizations, law enforcement, and emergency responders work together to plan for, identify, and respond to events and incidents.
This, of course, leads to more information and an even better understanding. When we are able to conduct after-event analysis, we can use what we learn to refine prevention plans, response strategies, and resource management. This allows us to gauge the efficacy of our initiatives and train responders for possible future situations. At the same time, using our understanding of actual events and situations can also help us reduce threats and mitigate serious outcomes—all of which leads to stronger public safety and an increased quality of life.
There is no such thing as too much information when you have the tools to understand and make use of it. This century of data is giving us a real opportunity to improve security as well as the daily lives of the people in our communities. We just have to take hold of it.
About The Author
Andrew Elvish is a columnist, explorer, and the Vice President of Marketing and Product Management at Genetec. Andrew has over 20 years’ experience in the software industry and will surprise you with his knowledge of great restaurants all over the world.