Britain unveils new crime-mapping system

A new online British crime-mapping system providing detailed information on crime and anti-social behavior has been implemented in England and Wales and aims to make citizens more actively involved in the policing process.

The unprecedented crime and local policing information site, Police.uk, allows users to view crime on a street-by-street level down to the nearest 12 residences. Visitors to the site need only enter an address or zip code to receive the monthly-updated information.

Users are free to display the data by street, neighborhood or crime type: burglary, anti-social behavior, robbery, vehicle crime, violent crime and other crime. The “other crime” category includes sex crimes, theft, shoplifting and drug offenses, according to the website.

The new system is part of the British Home Office’s “Policing in the 21st Century” consultation and a government initiative to portray itself in a more transparent light. It is the first phase in a longer program, which could see other information such as court progress and convictions made public, the Home Office website said.

Home Office policing minister Nick Herbert said in a press release, “We can’t sweep crime under the carpet. We have to tell the truth about crime and where it is happening and give the information and power to the public.”

The government project cost more than $480,000, took six months to complete and was first implemented last week. Only days from its debut, the site has seen massive increases in online traffic.

The online crime-buster tool has become so busy some users are complaining about delays. On Feb. 21, the Home Office Twitter feed claimed the site was receiving more than 300,000 hits a minute, equating to 18 million hits an hour.

Much of the traffic comes from street-goers using the tool via GPS technology in their smart phones. The system is available as an application for the Apple iPhone 4, Google Android and other mobile devices, according to Police.uk.

Dr. William Pelfrey, associate professor of crime at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, believes the app will see an early spike in use and then trail off.

“Once users develop revised routines and mental pathways (to work, retail or entertainment locations), usage will decline,” he said in an e-mail.

Whether citizens use the tool once or daily, several questions are circulating among critics as to how citizens and companies will use this information.

Michael Scott, a clinical law professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, claims that though no radical impact on citizen behavior has been seen yet, this kind of tool can lead to a more informed citizenry and accountable police force.

“Thoughtful citizens will rely on the information cautiously,” Scott said in an e-mail. “It can be useful for informing citizens about emerging problems and that knowledge can motivate them to taking effective community action and can help shape their expectations for police/government responses.”

Andrei Greska, a junior in the College of Communication, is studying abroad in London and lives in Islington, a business district borough just north of downtown.  Though the area is fairly safe, he said he would use the service to map out unfamiliar areas such as soccer stadiums on the city’s outskirts.

“Having a resource like that wouldn’t make me any safer, per se, but it would increase my chances of not putting myself in a bad situation,” Greska said.

Scott warns, “The maps themselves won’t solve the problems, so police and citizens still have to think about how to respond once problems have been identified.”