Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

Interactive crime maps for everyone by Christmas, says Home Office

Despite the fact that Parliament has risen (so that it’s officially the silly season – hey, was that a UFO flying past?), the Home Office is still busy at it. Today, it’s put out a press release saying that

Every neighbourhood in England and Wales will have access to the latest local crime information through new interactive crime maps, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced today.

The rollout of interactive crime maps follows the announcement made by the Home Secretary earlier this month, as part of the Policing Green Paper, that every police force in the country has now delivered monthly crime information to the public on their websites. New interactive crime maps will take the rollout of local crime information to the next level.

By the end of the year every police force area will produce crime maps which will allow the public to:

* see where and when crime has happened, down to street level for some crimes;

* make comparisons with other areas; and

* learn how crime is being tackled by their local neighbourhood policing team.

We think that the last of those is going to be very interesting indeed, since for senior police officers it will (in a nice phrase I heard on a related topic from a civil servant recently) “hold their feet to the fire”. (Strange how one has to summon images of torture when trying to get some public services to change..)

Coincidentally, we’ve had some interesting emails on the topic: one from (which, you’ll find, does some crime mapping).

And another reader wrote in at length:

“About 3 – 4 years ago I worked temporarily in Bury MBC’s Housing Department. There was a man in the Chief Executive’s department who had a GIS containing 3-years-worth of police crime data. He could rustle you up a map of recorded crimes, varying by type and date, for any local area you chose, on request. So it can’t be that difficult to do it.

“In the early 1970’s I was Area Housing Manager at Speke in Liverpool. My office was in the middle of this Council-built area some 6,000 houses and flats and the local police station was just across the street. This was long before we had computers for anything except (batch processed) rent accounting and it was before “defensible space” became an idea in good currency amongst urban designers.

“Following a disturbing interview with a widow with three children whose chronic poverty had been made even worse by being burgled 5 times in 6 months, I enlisted the help of the station sergeant. I gave him a 1:2500 plan of the estate and, at my request, he went through the station’s day book for 6 months past, putting a red felt-tip dot against the address of each recorded burglary.

“He returned the plan to me saying “I’ve done what you asked and it looks like a bad case of measles, but I’m none the wiser.” As soon as I saw the plan I was immediately the wiser. The “measles” were overwhelmingly clustered around particular styles and types of dwellings, and the 3-storey walk-up open-plan flats, where the widow lived, were many times more likely to be burgled than (say) the semi-detached houses.

“I subsequently extracted £30,000-worth of additional fencing from my bosses to enhance security. (Quite a lot in 1974.)

“The point of the story is not that I was cleverer than the police sergeant; I’m sure I wasn’t. The point is that a policeman’s eyes see a residential area one way, and a housing manager sees it another. Who knows what might be achieved if lots of people could see the data and bring their distinctive perceptions and intelligences to its analysis and interpretation?

What indeed? Simon Dickson is a bit dubious about how easy it will be for government to do this; Steven Feldman (who I think we could fairly call a sceptic about Free Our Data – which is fine; an unopposed theory has no strength) has pointed out that postcodes sometimes give more detail away than you’d think (personally, I suspect that domestic violence will be excluded from these visible crime stats).

So we’ll wait to see. By Christmas? Sounds fun.

(Crossposted with the Technology Guardian blog)

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