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Data-Driven Crime Fighting

Law enforcement agencies adopt new tools in an effort to be more proactive in getting resources where they're most needed.
Technology Trends

In an effort to involve citizens more closely in law enforcement, many police agencies have begun to post crime statistics and regional geographic crime data on their Web sites. The Edmonton Police Service uses Google Maps and an in-house application to display essentially the same geographic crime data police officers get at their morning report, minus specific addresses.

That effort hasn't been lost on Internet entrepreneurs. Crimereports.com offers a crime mapping capability in the software-as-a-service model to small and midsize police agencies. "Most agencies are tiny," says CEO Greg Whisenant. "Ninety-three percent serve a population of fewer than 20,000 people." Crimereports.com's software can query an agency's CAD system or RMS or any ODBC-compliant database, and generate reports as often as the agency wants, generally once a day. "Whatever data store they have, we can connect to it," he says.

Mobility is an important aspect of police work, and one that is receiving increasing attention from technology vendors. Tucson's Wysocki says he is piloting a PDA-based version of Coplink and, in the same vein, Chicago PD's Lewin says Oracle is developing "a scaled-down incident-reporting system for the Blackberry."

As they are in the corporate world, cell phones are an increasingly common piece of technology equipment among police officers. Nixle offers a service that publishes text messages and e-mails to cell phones or Web sites in targeted geographic areas, and has signed on 3,000 public agencies since its launch in March, according to CEO Craig Mitnick. Over and above sending out traffic alerts, Nixle increasingly is being tested by police agencies as a way for officers to communicate in emergency situations. The Pittsburgh Police Department successfully used Nixle in September to facilitate cell-phone communication among its 900 police officers and the 4,200 auxiliary police brought in to help with crowd control at the G20 Summit.

Too Much?

All this collecting, warehousing, and mining crime-related data begs the question, How much is too much?

In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the CIA, caused a stir this fall when it invested in Visible Technologies, which markets a service that monitors the digital conversations going on in social media. And John Motler, a sales engineer with SAS Institute, says one metropolitan police department has discussed with him the possibility of using SAS technology for social network analysis.

Both examples illustrate a trend known as "open source intelligence," which involves examining information available in the public domain for potential intelligence leads.

So how does this all relate to parking your car? The Georgetown incident still bothers Rasch. "What it meant was that D.C. was keeping a database of people who are legally parked," says Rasch, which, from a privacy standpoint, is "more intrusive than chalking the tires."

Pertinent questions include: How long do they hold on to that data? And with whom do they share it? It's an important discussion to have, both in terms of privacy and effective police methods. After all, as Rasch points out, it was a parking ticket that led to the arrest of serial killer Son of Sam.

The Vision The Challenges
  • Share data more broadly among police departments and local, state, and federal agencies
  • Use advanced analytics to model patterns of criminal activity
  • Scan the Web for potential leads, known as 'open source intelligence'
  • Integrate many disparate, disconnected databases
  • Adopt standards for interoperability of various data formats
  • Address privacy issues around the type of data stored and who sees it

John Soat is a freelance business and technology writer and former editor of InformationWeek. He has covered many key developments in the IT industry, including Microsoft's long battle with the U.S. Justice Department.