Some thoughts on Big Data in Policing

In preparation for my MSc teaching next semester I have been reading articles on many of the topics we will be discussing in class. On of my favourite papers so far is by Chan and Moses “Is Big Data challenging criminology?”

The open premise is simple and thought provoking and actually connects very strongly to one of my other areas of interest ‘Expertise’ specifically within a crime analysis context, be the Crime Scene Investigator or Crime Intelligence Analyst. Anyway the point Chan and Moses debate is that, at what point will be need specialists? That is to say experts. Will they be valued in future policing ? Now there is much in the press about direct entry to being a Detective, direct entry to senior ranks for those largely with specialist skills but let us think about what experts do.  If we need experts to help us navigate paths where we don’t have enough information and accept that experts help us ‘fill-the-gaps’ what happens when we don’t need to worry anymore about having only some of the information? Perhaps there is no need to rely on people with intuition and experience or at the very least value them, why? Because we won’t just have a sample of the data anymore, we have all of it! Or at least the decision makers will.

My favourite quote Chan and Moses capture from Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier (2013) “…To be sure, subject-area experts won’t die out. But their supremacy will ebb. From now on, they must share the podium with the big-data geeks…” In a future blog I may come back to this article in more depth but for now it raises an interesting point in policing in general – to what extent in the near future will we rely or need experience? Will the future be a soup of algorithms that mine all the cases someone, scratch that, everyone has ever worked with a result output? If this is the case and I should say very quickly that not everyone believes this to be the true, it nevertheless raises the point about data and the skills people need to use it effectively. Chan and Moses then go on to discuss the work of Uprichard’s (2013) here she states that Sociologists, some of the hardest hit, must fight back by improving ‘quantitative skills’. Perhaps a point for any Crime Intelligence Analyst to think about.

In this paper Steadman(2013) is remarked as suggesting that well frankly not everything will be ‘codified’; not everything can or perhaps will be measured and even if  it is, someone will still need to be required to comment on the result.

The following quote by Chan and Moses is important because it begins to show how analytics has begun to invade/help (In the interests of balance I will leave it to you to decide) a wide variety of policing roles.

“The relevance of these debates is made more urgent by the increasing popularity of the use of data analytic software for ‘predictive policing’ (Bond-Graham and Winston, 2013; Perry et al., 2013; Uchida, 2013) and decisions about bail and parole (Berk and Bleich, 2013; Bennett Moses and Chan, 2014). It is important not only to develop a clear counter-argument to the widely cited arguments of Anderson (2008) and Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier (2013), but also to articulate the limits of ‘criminal justice forecasting’ as a rational basis for making strategic choices in law enforcement or for policy-making more broadly (cf. Berk and Bleich, 2013).”

I will write a further blog later on what they found out but if you can’t wait till then then the following link below is where you can read the paper in full. If nothing else I hope it has stirred you to thinking more about Big Data and how it is or could be influencing your own work: where the benefits are as well as the weaknesses. And if you are an Analyst just what sort of skills do you need to help you use data? In future blogs I hope to explore some simple code to do some data mining but for now, ponder the philosophical issue above. [accessed 26th July 2017]

Bye for now. Regards Mark

Dr Mark Butler course leader for Crime Intelligence and Data Analystics

Here is a list of papers I mentioned when I discussed the points debated by Chan and Moses. This will give you the chance to explore in more detail anyone that got a mention 🙂

Anderson C (2008) The end of theory: The data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete. Wired Magazine, 23 June. Available at: maga- zine/16–07/pb_theory (accessed 17 July 2014).

Bennett Moses L and Chan J (2014) Using Big Data for legal and law enforcement decisions: Testing the new tools. UNSW Law Journal 37(2): 643–678.

Berk R and Bleich J (2013) Statistical procedures for forecasting criminal behavior. Criminology & Public Policy 12(3): 513–544.

Bond-Graham D and Winston A (2013) All tomorrow’s crimes: The future of policing looks a lot like good branding. SF Weekly, 30 October. Available at: http://www.sfweekly. com/sanfran- cisco/all-tomorrows-crimes-the-future-of-policing-looks-a-lot-like-good-branding/Content? oid=2827968&showFullText=true (accessed 15 April 2015).

Mayer-Schönberger V and Cukier K (2013) Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think. London: John Murray.

Perry WL, McInnis B, Price CC, et al. (2013) Predicting Policing: The Role of Crime Forecasting in Law Enforcement Operations. Rand Corporation. Available at: (accessed 17 December 2014).

Steadman I (2013) Big Data and the death of the theorist. Wired, 25 January. Available at:–01/25/big-data-end-of-theory (accessed 17 July 2014).

Uchida CD (2013) Predictive policing. In: Bruinsma G and Weisburd D (eds) Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. New York: Springer, 3871–3880.

Uprichard E (2013) Focus: Big Data, little questions? Discover Society, 1 October. Available at: (accessed 17 July 2014).