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Cutting Crime Impact, using data to predict crime

Date:06 November 2019
Researcher Oskar Gstrein
Researcher Oskar Gstrein

The blockbuster Minority Report (2002) is set in a future in which a special police unit is able to arrest criminals before they commit their crimes. Science fiction? Not anymore. Researcher Oskar Gstrein (Data Research Centre, Campus Fryslân) is exploring the ethical, legal and social issues of such technology in a large European research project that looks at how to use data to predict and prevent petty crime: Cutting Crime Impact.

What is your research about?
“Cutting Crime Impact (CCI) is a three-year project that started on 1 October 2018 and is funded by the European Commission. CCI will result in greater openness to innovation and design approaches amongst Law Enforcement Agencies (e.g. police) and security policymakers across Europe.

The CCI project addresses ‘high-impact petty crime’. This is defined as crime against people or property in towns and cities, such as burglary, bicycle theft and shoplifting. Such petty crime is common, and neighbourhoods that are affected by an increase in this kind of crime often find it turns more serious.

This type of crime, therefore, has a significant negative impact on European citizens’ quality of life, community cohesion and the safety and security of the urban environment. People living in deprived neighbourhoods and vulnerable groups are often the most seriously affected.

We want to reduce the amount of petty crime and use the outcome of our research to help policymakers define new policy.”

Which partners are involved?
“There are six police forces involved: The Dutch National Police (The Netherlands), Landeskriminalamt Niedersachsen (Germany), Lisbon Community Police (Portugal), the Government of Catalonia (Spain), the Greater Manchester Police (UK), and the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board. This represents a broad mix of national and regional police forces. Other partners include knowledge institutions such as the University of Groningen, the European Forum for Urban Security in Paris (EFUS), and the German Prevention Congress (DPT).”

What are the goals of the research?
“This project has two main goals. First, to reduce and prevent crime. The aim of CCI is to enable police and relevant local and national authorities such as security policymakers to reduce the impact of crime and, where possible, prevent crime from occurring in the first place. The second goal is to encourage the wider adoption of effective approaches to safety and security across Europe. CCI will develop an extended European Security Model that includes high-impact crime and citizens’ feelings of insecurity.”

What is the role of data in your research?
“Police forces have a lot of historical data. If you analyse this data using algorithms, you can predict where and when crimes are going to happen. This technology is called “Predictive Policing”. It makes it possible to send police to a specific place at a specific time. Aggregating this data with other data, for example on income or the distance to a highway, can increase the predictive capabilities of such a model.”

Are the possibilities of using data the same in every country?
“No, the legal and cultural aspects differ between countries. For example, the Netherlands has fewer problems with this kind of aggregated data, whereas Germany finds it much harder to use data in this way. Of course, the algorithms are not perfect, so the prediction is not always right. This means there are a lot of ethical, social and judicial questions to be solved. It is important that governments and policy makers make value-based decisions when using innovative technology.

This project is not only about how to use data in a smart way, but also about identifying the different aspects of data use and policing. Ultimately, we want to build and present a security model that can be used by all the participants in the project.”

How do you gather your data?
“As I mentioned, we use a lot of historical data – crime statistics – but also empirical data from research on people’s sense of security in the participating countries.”

What are the difficulties working with data in an international network?
“We see a difference in culture between the participating countries, but we also see a difference in culture and approach between regional and national police forces, for example. This makes it important to make the right comparisons and use data responsibly. To give an example, the studies into people’s feelings of security differ by country. We therefore need to be careful to look for comparable data and use that and particular the insights that we draw from it. Although we strive for a more common European understanding of these issues, you also have to accept that there are historical differences and that they might continue to exist.”

Interested in finding out more about this research? Visit the Cutting Crime Impact website.

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