Crime mapping – power to the people

Posted on February 03, 2011

Finally – after years of arguments, promises and u-turns on the part of both Labour and the Conservatives – the Government has introduced crime mapping right across the country at www.police.uk.

Anyone who doubted that there was an interest among the public in finding out what crimes are committed in their neighbourhoods was immediately given a firm slap round the chops by the fact that the site received so much traffic it has at times struggled to deal with it all. At its peak it was getting 18 million hits an hour – a remarkable number.

Obviously, the Guardian chose to lead on the fact it crashed without reflecting on the fact that this proved what huge demand there is out there for this kind of transparency.

I’m personally delighted about crime mapping coming to the UK because it has been a massive hobby horse of mine in recent years. I first wrote about it for the TPA almost 3 years ago and since then I’ve met ministers, spoken at the Police Federation conference, addressed the Association of Chief Police Officers and generally banged the drum for this idea endlessly – not always making myself popular, it must be said.

This is a genuinely exciting reform. For the first time, everyone has the right to know what the real picture is of reported crime in a given area. That helps people moving house, scrutinising police performance and communicating with their MP.

It’s still just the start of the transparency and accountability revolution, though.

Giving people this information is a great start, but there’s plenty more to give. Other police forces are apparently experimenting with ways to provide even more data in greater accuracy and more informative formats. Yvette Cooper has called for full transparency on police numbers, which I can’t see a problem with. Ideally in my view each crime on the map would also be updated when it is either solved and prosecuted or shelved into a cold file. The possibilities are myriad.

Once you’ve given people information, you should also give them the power to do something with it, too. Now people are being given some data about how effective or ineffective their local police are, it is high time they were given the right to elect, scrutinise and – if necessary – sack the people in charge of the force.

The internet makes it possible for us to be given access to all that state data which our public employees compile about all of us in our name and at our expense. The digital revolution, if properly applied, can be a real revolution – handing power from hidden officials in back offices to the people. Crime mapping is an early and crucial step on that road to empowerment.