IBM begs Britain's new top cops: C'mon, set up pre-crime units
Coppers are 'wasting' predictive model tech on beancounting
England and Wales residents will soon be able to vote in their own local cop chiefs. Police officers in 41 forces across the UK are set to come under the direction of the new officials - elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs) - from next week. And it seems IBM wants to have a word on how the new brooms plan to do their jobs.
British residents - except for Londoners, whose Mayor Boris Johnson also wears a PCC cap - will be able to vote for their "Commish" from 15 November. Among the duties of the new PCCs, as described by the Home Office, is setting police and crime "plans" and working with local authorities to "promote joined-up working".
Stats on crimes and clear-up rates are sure to become an important part of the new way of working, as elected officials try to measure the performance of their plans. PCCs will want to incontrovertible proof their plans are hitting the spot if they are to get re-elected
Also, PCCs are sure to want to compare the performance of their force against others.
Big Blue: Precogs... Who needs 'em?
Enter IBM, which sees the November elections as an opportunity to promote the uptake of its SPSS and I2 analytics software among the forces of Great Britain. IBM bought SPSS for $1.2bn in 2009 and i2 in 2011 for an undisclosed sum.
IBM claims every force in the UK already uses its SPSS statistics module and I2 analyst notebook, but says cops are not exploiting the kit to its full potential when it comes to crime fighting and crime prevention. Instead, they're used by beancounters and for basic statistical analysis.
IBM believe British forces should hit the beat on crime prevention by employing content analysis and predictive modeling using unstructured data - something that comprises 95 per cent of the data police handle in the form of video, written statements, crime reports, media, Tweets - along with the structured stuff. Also, police should be able to draw on data from sources outside of day-to-day policing - groups involved in housing and education.
Ahead of the elections, IBM tells The Reg it's been making "informal contacts" among candidates about using SPSS modules and I2 to anticipate crime and deploy police.
"We are talking to a number of candidates," IBM's global lead for crime analytic Ron Fellows said on a recent visit to IBM's Hursley facility in the UK. "It's a case of seeing what the feeling is among candidates and forces for the increased use of technology."
He reckons social media analytics - analysis of Tweets or Blackberry messenger that helped rioters in 2011 - is the one thing apart from predictive analytics that he gets asked about most by police. Post-riot stats showed word about the violence and disorder had spread on social media three-and-half hours before the police were notified of what was going on.
IBM has already worked with police forces in the US, where elected police commissioners are a way of life, on predictive modelling. Among them, Memphis Police Department in a project with Tennessee University on a project called Blue Crush. Fellows said it had reduced crime by 30 per cent by predicting where a crime would happen.
"The nirvana is real time operations based on real time info - like the military. The vast majority [of forces] are on the bottom rung - still reacting to crime using limited information. They must improve the way they work," Fellows said.
Greater Manchester Police is cited by IBM as one British force that, briefly, attained nirvana. Under retired chief superintendent Keith Bentley, GMP rolled out SPSS and I2 following the 2001 Oldham Riots.
Manchester used spatial analytics and mapped data to other crimes and related offenders. It also used predictive analytics to research cold cases and violent and sexual criminal offences. The force employed SQL searches and looked at spatial and temporal graphs to see how offenders had approached victims - they discovered 29 variables. The result was 12 offenders arrested, two crimes clarified, and eight clusters of other precautions identified that had been missed.
Predictive analysis is all very good for fans of a Minority Report future, but British police won't be able to liberally start upgrading their SPSS modules right after 15 November. The first problem is that off-the-shelf software like SPSS must be bought through the controversial Sprint ii IT procurement framework for public sector, whose only supplier is SCC.
Microsoft: You're barking up the wrong tree by asking PCCs
Home Secretary Theresa May last year told the Association of Chief Police Officers that the current methods of buying ICT were "confused, fragmented and expensive" and mandated police forces had to make all their purchases using Spring ii in March 2011. Sprint ii was supposed to clean things up, but forces have complained that it makes deals more expensive. Working though frameworks also slows down the procurement process.
Only during next April will Sprint ii be reviewed and partially replaced.
Microsoft's national technology officer Mark Ferrar, told The Reg that although the idea of elected police commissioners is new, he expects deals will continue to be transacted through existing frameworks, PSAs, licensing agreements... and, of course, through G-Cloud.
"IBM might believe lobbying elected commissions is a way they think they will gain influence - they may be right. But our route to market will be the same processes - if they do a really big project buy something off a government framework. We have strong relationships the chief constables, their CIOs and top offices. That's how we work," he said.
Ferrar said Microsoft's Dynamics and BI tools in SQL Server are used in crime reporting, while Microsoft's FAST search software is deployed on the Police National Database. FAST was bought for $1.2bn in 2008 by Microsoft.
Office 365 was used by forces to communicate during the Olympics while "many" forces have been testing Windows 8 since it was released to manufacturing during the summer, said Ferrar.
Another issue is allocation of resources: do you spend money on tech or that perennial right-of-centre vote winner - more police on the beat? Bentley pointed out it's one thing to buy SPSS modules, but staff are needed to make the most of concepts - such as spatial analysis and mapping using Kohonen analysis. In some cases, Bentley reckoned, that means making the most out of the modules you've got rather than buying more.
"If you want to get the best out of it [the software] you have to train people... we need to train the analysts to use the existing tools better, which correlates with doing more with less because we have some good stuff and we have to sue it wiser," Bentley said.
"Do you spend money on this stuff or keep half a dozen cops in work? Politically, if you keep more cops in work you are doing what the city wants: visible officers. If you spend it on technology, it's more money going down the drain on 'useless' IT products - that's the perception."
Also, what if elected officials abuse the data - start cherry-picking the best stats to flatter their record or achievements?
Fellows believes this can be avoided with new laws that mandate the kinds of data published. "One of the benefits of having a standardised template is people can't cherry-pick the best data. You have to ensure you are getting all the data and accurate answers. How you do it us up to the legislators. What IT can provide is the ability to make this happen," Fellows says.
There is a deeper problem, though, and it comes back to singling out particular candidates - or, indeed, any individual. When a person moves on as the project leader, that project can wither. This happened in Greater Manchester when Bentley left - predictive analysis is no longer used.
This calls for a culture of more co-ordinated, national approach to crime prevention and analysis so you no longer need rely on individual sponsors. This has implications on how policing is done in the UK: on a national or on a force-by-force basis.
"Keith would agree one of the reasons why it fell by the wayside was very much in the collective mind of Greater Manchester Police," Fellows said. "Keith went on to do other things. He was the driving force - that's the way with programmes in policing... if a new incumbent doesn't shout as loudly for their project, these things tend to fade into the background."
Fellows is pessimistic that there will be much change in the short term: with tight IT spending, police forces won't be hitting predictive analytics nirvana too soon after November. Also, police IT differs widely in its state of repair: for all the police forces Ferrar says are testing Windows 8, The Reg knows of other forces still running Windows 2000 on PCs.
Fellows says: "I'm sure as word gets around about the benefits of predictive analysis, [there will be] much more potential for this sort of thing in policing."
What will trigger that? Success by one force in one area, just like Greater Manchester, Fellows says. ®