In 2008, police forces across the United Kingdom (UK) launched an online crime mapping tool “to help improve the credibility and confidence that the public had in police-recorded crime levels, address perceptions of crime, promote community engagement and empowerment, and support greater public service transparency and accountability.” How effective has this large scale digital mapping effort been? “There continues to be a lack of evidence that publishing crime statistics using crime mapping actually supports improvements in community engagement and empowerment.” This blog post evaluates the project’s impact by summarizing the findings from a recent peer-reviewed study entitled: “Engagement, Empowerment and Transparency: Publishing Crime Statistics using Online Crime Mapping.” Insights from this study have important implications for crisis mapping projects.
The rationale for publishing up-to-date crime statistics online was to address the “reassurance gap” which “relates to the counterintuitive relationship between fear of crime and the reality of crime.” While crime in the UK has decreased steadily over the past 15 years, there was no corresponding in the public’s fear of crime during this period. Studies subsequently found a relationship between a person’s confidence in the criminal justice system and the level to which a person felt informed about crime and justice issue. “Hence, barriers to accurate information were one of the main reasons why the reassurance gap, and lack of confidence in the police, was believed to exist.”
A related study found that people’s opinions on crime levels were “heavily influenced by media depictions, demographic qualities, and personal ex- perience.” Meanwhile, “the countervailing source of information—nationally reported crime statistics—was not being heard. Simply put, the message that crime levels were falling was not getting through to the populace over the cacophony of competing information.” Hence the move to publish crime statistics online using a crime map.
Studies have long inferred that “publically disseminating crime information engages the public and empowers them to get involved in their communities. This has been a key principle in the adoption of community policing, where the public are considered just as much a part of community safety as the police themselves. Increasing public access to crime information is seen as integral to this whole agenda.” In addition, digital crime mapping was “seen as a ‘key mechanism for encouraging the public to take greater responsibility for holding the local police to account for their performance.’ In other words, it is believed that publishing information on crime at a local level facilitates greater public scrutiny of how well the police are doing at suppressing local crime and serves as a basis for dialogue between the public and their local police.”
While these are all great reasons to launch a nationwide crime mapping initiative online, “the evidence base that should form the foundations of the policy to pub- lish crime statistics using crime maps is distinctly absent.” When the project launched, “no police force had conducted a survey (robust or anecdotal) that had measured the impact that publishing crime statistics had on improving the credibility of these data or the way in which the information was being used to inform, reassure, and engage with the public.” In fact, “the only research-derived knowledge available on the impact of crime maps on public perceptions of crime was generated in the USA, on a small and conveniently selected sample.”
Moreover, many practitioners had “concerns with the geocoding accuracy of some crime data and how this would be represented on the national crime mapping site (i.e. many records cannot be geographically referenced to the exact location where the crime took place) […] which could make the interpretation of street-level data misleading and confusing to the public.” The authors thus argue that “an areal visualization method such as kernel density estimation that is commonly used in police forces for visualizing the geographic distribution of crime would have been more appropriate.”
The media was particularly critical of the confusion provoked by the map and the negative media attention “may have done long-term damage to the reputation of crime statistics. Whilst these inaccuracies are few in number, they have been high profile and risk undermining the legitimacy and confidence in the accuracy of all the crime statistics published on the site. Indeed, these concerns were highlighted further in October 2011 when the crime statistics for the month of August appeared to show no resemblance to the riots […].”
Furthermore, “contemporary research has stressed that information provision needs to be relevant to the recipients, and should emphasize police responsive-ness to local issues to chime with the public’s priorities.” Yet the UK’s online crime map does not “taylor sub-neighborhood reassurance messages alongside the publishing of crime statistics (e.g., saying how little crime there is in your neighborhood). General messages of reassurance and crime prevention often fail to resonate. This also under-scores the need for tailored information that is actively passed on to local communities at times of heightened crime risk, which local residents can then use to minimize their own immediate risk of victimization and improve local public safety.”
In addition, the presentation of “crime statistics on the national website is very passive, offering little that will draw people back and keep them interested on crime trends and policing in their area.” For example, the project did not require users to register their email addresses and home post (zip) codes when using the map. This meant the police had no way to inform interested audiences with locally relevant crime information such as “specific and tailored crime prevention advice regarding a known local crime issue (e.g. a spate of burglaries), directly promoting messages of reassurance and used as a means to publicize police activity.” I would personally argue for the use of automated alerts and messages of reassurance via geo-fencing. (The LA Crime Map provides automated alerts, for example). I would also recommend social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter to the map.
In conclusion, the authors question the “assumption that all police-recorded crime data are fit for purpose for mapping at street level.” They recommend using the Management of Police Information (MOPI) protocol, which states that “information must fulfill a necessary purpose for it to be recorded and retained by the police.” MOPI would “help to qualify what should and what should not be published, and the mechanism by which it is published.” Instead of mapping everything and anything, the authors advocate for the provision of “better quality information that the public can actually do something with to minimize their risk of victimization, or use as a basis for dialogue with their local policing teams.” In sum, “the purpose of publishing the crime statistics must not lose sight of the important potential it can contribute to improving the dialogue and involvement of local communities in improving community safety, and must avoid becoming an exercise in promoting political transparency when the data it offers provides little that encourages the public to react.”
For more on crime mapping, see: