Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/02/04/crime_mapping_police_uk/

UK police crime map website: Who's the victim here?

Do a man dirt, yourself you hurt

By Kelly Fiveash

Posted in Law, 4th February 2011 13:13 GMT

Analysis Earlier this week the Home Office unveiled its crime-mapping website, which was developed by Leicester-based ad agency Rock Kitchen Harris for £300,000.

Immediately following the site’s launch, Police.uk suffered a serious bout of stage nerves as it wobbled under the demand from UK residents seizing the chance to find out what crime was being committed in their neighbourhoods.

A Home Office spokesman, who didn’t quite grasp what an API was*, told The Register at the time that Police.uk was taking between four and five million hits an hour, hence its inability to keep up with demand. For many, that explanation didn’t square given the hundreds of thousands of pounds pumped into the project. Worse still, the whole thing runs atop an Amazon Web Services EC2 box, which ought to have allowed it to scale, even when fielding millions of hits from street stalkers and property pervs across the land.

As we were quick to report, ahead of the alarmist cries of “website down” from the mainstream press, the site itself offered the first conclusive smack in the face to open source and open standards developers in Blighty, who have largely welcomed the ConDem’s approach to what is seen by many to be a thoroughly sensible panacea for the handling of government data online.

Then step forward one man who grabbed the data and created his very own police crime-spewing stats website in eight hours flat. Software architect Rob West’s Crimesearch.co.uk portal might lack the kind of prettiness, bandwidth or scale that Police.uk supposedly boasts, but it does demonstrate what one bored coder can do in response to a fantastical cash splurge by a government apparently obsessed with keeping costs down.

“At my reckoning and at Home Office rates [£300,000] they should have paid me £37,000 per hour!”, West told us.

He echoed what other developers have been asking about Police.uk since its data release, endorsed by the Information Commissioner’s Office, on Tuesday: why did it have to cost so much?

Sadly, the Home Office hasn’t been willing to provide a comprehensive answer, instead preferring to tell us that it couldn’t say much about the £100,000 backend and £200,000 development costs for “commercial reasons”. But the government’s agenda to be more “transparent” about its data just took a small yet arguably significant blow.

“If the Home Office wanted to keep control of this project and specify the website functionality, all they needed to do was pass this piece of work onto a small web development company, who could have done it for less than a tenth of the price,” opined West. “Then they could have done their own PR. I suppose their issue with a small company is it might be viewed as high risk. ‘Nobody got sacked for buying IBM’ sort of thing.

“Better still if they had released the raw data and let someone pick it up. Yes, they wouldn't be able to specify the functionality, but wouldn't the functionality be defined by evolution? The best functionality would get the most hits, and therefore would survive.

"I am sure there are many developers out there that would do this sort of thing for the good of the community. I know I have banner ads on my website, but believe me they don't generate that much revenue.

Not that great, but at least it cost a lot

"I'm just hoping that they pay for my bandwidth, and if I am really lucky I get a beer for my efforts.”

We think West, who like so many others in the UK developer community welcomes the government’s efforts on getting some datasets opened up, certainly does deserve a pint or two if for nothing else highlighting what can be done with very few funds, a solid developer brain and eight hours to kill.

The unregistered Police.uk domain has been in existence for 15 years, since about the middle of 1996. It has undergone several incarnations during that time, but in recent years its pages were somewhat surprisingly bereft of any content.

As for the government’s crime-mapping efforts, a separate project was launched in October 2009. Rock Kitchen Harris designed an interactive mapping system for British citizens to compare crime figures across England and Wales using data garnered from 43 police forces. In that instance, the company powered its maps via Microsoft's Bing offering rather than Google’s geocoding API.

Beyond that there was something very similar about the launch: the site unceremoniously crashed under the load from people keen to sift through the data online. A visit to that site now tells us that this service “has now been integrated into the Police.uk website, and includes street-level crime data and many other enhancements.”

Following the launch of Police.uk earlier this week, data inaccuracies have been repeatedly reported by people getting the wrong results or none at all after punching their postcode into the system.

Meanwhile, Rock Kitchen Harris’s account manager Paul Sculthorpe has been defending his company’s expensive project via Twitter.

“We scaled with demand (to a point!) with EC2, but still ended up slow/unusable. Demand high now, but normal soon I hope!” he said.

So while some credit is due to the government for releasing the datasets, even if they are made available in unsatisfactory monthly chunks, the way it presented the whole thing has left many coders wondering why the hell it had to cost so much.

“In these times of austerity, I just hate to see my money to be wasted in this way. With just a bit of lateral thinking, I am sure the government could save us all a bit of money,” said West. We’ll certainly drink to that. ®

*For the benefit of our friend at the Home Office, the API is here.