Sub-editor, Geospatial World
A common feature in almost every police station is maps displayed on walls, with pins stuck on to them. Each pin represents a crime event, implying that the police inherently recognises the geographical component of crime. Even the CompStat process of police draws heavily on crime mapping and is an example of operational analysis, where the need is to access and visualise up-to-date information in a timely fashion.
However, according to the book Crime Mapping and GIS, it was studies such as those from the Chicago School of the 1930s that first demonstrated the importance of geography in understanding crime. The authors of the book, Spencer Chainey and Jery Ratcliffe, also mentioned that the earliest map of crime originates from France. It was published in 1833 when Andre-Michel Guerry published a book of maps showing, amongst other features, the distribution of violent crime and property crime in France (Guerry, 1833).
Footprint of crime maps
Much of the innovation in crime mapping was driven in the US by the National Institute of Justice’s Crime Mapping Research Center (CMRC). Renamed in 2002 as the Mapping and Analysis for Public Safety (MAPS) programme, the impact of this US government initiative did not remainconfined to the US, but paved way for crime mapping in many other countries, including the UK, Australia, South Africa and across South America. The MAPS programme raised awareness of crime mapping through conferences, publications and by developing crime mapping software tools and funding new fields of crime mapping research. The MAPS programme, joined by many other institutions and organisations, continues to be an active player in supporting the development of crime mapping, with the result that crime mapping is now more widely recognised by government and law enforcement services as a tool to aid policing and in reducing crime.
GIS at forefront
Getting crime data into a GIS and onto a map is the starting point for many crime mappers and also a challenging task. It plays a very crucial role in the process of crime auditing, through geographical analysis and mapping.GIS provides the platform where crime data can be layered with base maps and other geographic data that represent the landscape of the area where the crime data is associated. The base maps represent the street network, the homes in a housing estate or buildings and open spaces in a town centre. Other geographic information may include population data from a census, the locations of automatic teller machines (ATM) or data describing the local land use patterns. These data can be represented as individual layers. The layers can be manipulated, analysed or displayed as separate entities. They can also be combined with other layers to be displayed together, integrated to provide a new perspective of the area that they represent or analysed against each other to reveal a particular relationship.
This image shows how abstract layers of land use, demography, regenration areas and the transport network (built from the original reality) can be displayed with crime data and areas targeted for crime reduction, superimposed over each other as georeferenced layers. Source: Esri UK
According to several experts (speaking on anonymity), most of the geospatial technology used in crime mapping was originally designed for the study of disease patterns. They stress that the importance of data quality can never be valued until errors in the data are revealed at the stage of analysis or the final report. Investing in data from the outset can bring long-term returns and improve the quality of all future applications of crime mapping.
Hypothetical model of the creation of criminal occurrence space where offender awareness space and oppourtunities coincide. Source: Adapted from Brantingham and Brantingham (1999, p.10)
Nowadays, government as well as non-government organisations across the world are gearing up for crime mapping. For instance, the UK Police launched an online interactive crime map, https://www.police.uk but it crashed within hours as it could not bear 300,000 hits per minute.
In Australia, everymap.com.au allows people to report crime, information about events, local problems such as potholes or damaged footpaths and other community issues. It enables communities to build up a crowd-sourced picture of an issue or event, and its location. It was launched by Angela Clark, former Macquarie Radio Network CEO. The website is based on Ushahidi, an open source platform for mapping and visualising data geo-spatially.
WikiCrimes in Brazil receives crime reports from around the world. It is based on Google Maps and was developed by Professor Vasco Furtado from the University of Fortaleza, Brazil. Similarly, VicTEAMS was created in 2009 in response to the thousands of hold-ups, kidnappings and murders committed in Venezuela. It was developed by Patricia Ortiz. In the beginning, it was based on Facebook and now it independently live on the Internet. It relies on user-generated content.
In addition, an online crime map of Mexico City was created by the newspaper El Universal, and a Buenos Aires province “map of insecurity” was funded by Argentine businessman and centre-right lawmaker Francisco de Narváez.
Crime map sites have also been set up in Chile and Panama. The Chilean crime map distinguishes between official crime reports and online reports from citizens. Mi Panamá Transparente [“My Transparent Panama”], created by a group of journalists and non-governmental organisations, widens the focus to include swindles and corruption.
According to VicTEAMS, online maps are a useful tool towards reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a series of targets adopted in 2000 by the international community to drastically reduce poverty, hunger, inequality, illness, mortality and environmental degradation across the globe by 2015. But such online maps need volunteer contribution, and authenticity of the information is a big issue.
“At WikiCrimes we are concerned about false reporting. It is up to users to provide the system with information that boosts its credibility. Links can be added to videos, newspapers, photos or any other document that supports the informant’s credibility,” said Vasco Furtado, developer of WikiCrimes, while talking to the media. He added that the incidents reported on interactive maps depend on the goodwill of citizens, but cooperation with government agencies can be decisive. Furtado stressed, “The authorities do not view WikiCrimes as their ally, because it challenges the status quo. They are afraid of being pressured by society.”
On the other hand, academics like Iria Puyosa, an expert on social networking and social capital, put different perspective in front of the media. Puyosa said, “The problem of violent crimes in Latin America will not be solved by online maps. These are useful to a limited extent, for fighting invisibility and the absence of information.”
Recently, insurance company Direct Line conducted a survey to understand volunteers’ mindset about online interactive crime maps. The company observed that more than 5.2 million people in the UK have not reported crimes for fear of deterring home buyers or renters since the UK’s Home Office’s online crime map (https://www.police.uk/) was launched in February 2011.
Displaying crime information in a computer-based mapping system, such as a graph showing how crime levels have changed in a particular area, can be a powerful means of communicating information. Many police forces utilise crime maps in their daily or regular meetings to assist in the briefing of police patrols, as well as draw on maps to help organise the deployment of police officers for particular operations. Geospatial technology undoubtedly plays a vital role in understanding and tackling crime. Crime mapping can play an important role in the policing and crime reduction process, from the first stage of data collection through to the monitoring and evaluation of any targeted response. It can also act as an important mechanism in a more pivotal preliminary stage, that of preventing crime by helping in the design of initiatives that are successful in tackling crime.