Dan Lewis: At last, communities can start to see the reality of crime

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TODAY, the Economic Policy Centre launches a new website, www.ukcrimestats.com – the country’s first crime-ranking platform for neighbourhoods, police forces and streets with maps, analysis and reports.

Depending on whom you believe, crime may be an economic or social problem but solving it has always been an information-driven solution. The coalition Government understands that and this is why they took the brave decision to release the monthly crime data for England and Wales at the beginning of the year.

And they expressly wanted independent third parties like ourselves to go through it and find new ways of analysing it and – probably less welcome with some – finding the errors.

It’s a lot of data – 500,000 crimes for England and Wales every month, each categorised as either burglary, robbery, violent, “other”, vehicle and anti-social behaviour with a close approximate grid reference for the map.

For the first time, Britons can see how their neighbourhood ranks against others in their area or which neighbourhoods or police forces have the most vehicle or violent crime right across the country between different points in time. Already, with just three months of data – December 2010, January and February 2011 – some key trends are observable and they do not always make for comfortable reading.

For a start, a lot of crime seems to happen where people don’t actually live and city centres tend to figure highly as hot-spots. Areas like Liverpool and Leicester city centres and Oxford, Regent’s and Bond Street in Central London. So crime statistics that, traditionally, put a lot of emphasis on static population counts to deflate the impact of crime are not very useful in cases such as these. What really matters – if you could measure it – is the total throughput of population and the opportunities for crime that presents.

That’s why population-weighted crime rates – crimes per 1,000 residents in a selected area over a specified time period – really don’t convey the whole picture.

In total crime, Yorkshire itself shows huge variation. Across the 43 police forces of England and Wales from December 2010 to February 2011, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire had the fourth and ninth highest total crime rate of 36.10 and 30.71. In contrast, the total crime rate for North Yorkshire Police was the third lowest with a rate of 17.66. I hasten to add, this is not in any way indicative of the varying policing skills of Yorkshire’s officers. Far from it. Correlation is not causation. You can be a highly effective police team in a high crime area. But it does give people in the different areas of Yorkshire, an idea of relative risk.

Besides, the 43 police forces are not taking the quality of the data they provide to the public very seriously and it falls far short of any known commercial standard. Quite the worst was Sussex Police who left out more than 700,000 people. But North Yorkshire has not done too well either. For example, Harrogate is missing some locations for their street data and Scarborough and Richmondshire have – among many others – been given a population count of zero.

This is why argue that, in future, all monthly crime data should be signed off by the head of each police force. Further, as our website only reflects the officially released police data, we can’t do much about it until they improve their data quality.

Above all, though, there is a real paucity to the data. Crime data typically have three elements; the crime, the victim and the criminal. All we have is very limited information about the first. We fully respect the need to protect victims’ anonymity and ongoing legal proceedings.

Yet it must be possible to reveal more detail than just six different types of crime, one of which is called “other” – exactly what falls under that? If we knew which of these crimes for example were bicycle theft, at what time and date they happened, we could quickly calculate where the hotspots were for cyclists to avoid leaving their bikes at certain times.

It should also be possible to release the number of arrests and convictions each month in a legally safe way.

Behind all of this, though, is the deep philosophical significance of a state that is preparing to change the dynamics of the relationship with its citizens. This has been described by Emer Coleman, Mayor Boris Johnson’s digital tsar, as a shift from broadcast to engagement, technical to adaptive and command and control, to collaboration and co-production.

With elected police chiefs on the way, this really is the start of a benign revolution in how local communities face up to their crime. For the first time, voters will have the data to engage with the police and their politicians on near-equal terms.

* Dan Lewis is chief executive of the Economic Policy Centre www.economicpolicycentre.com

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