New York City relies on big data to keep citizens safe

There's a tonne of data out there and amazing software like Plantir and PredPol, which makes data policing really easy - but is it effective?
30 May 2018

The City makes the best of big data analysis to protect its citizens. Source: Shutterstock

Whether you live in New York City or not, you’ll have to agree that there’s something about its chaos that brings a sense of order and peace.

Almost 9 million New Yorkers share 789 sq. kilometers every day. In essence, there’s a sort of magic in the fabric and the DNA of the city, comprising of its citizens, residents, and travelers.

And despite the hustle and bustle, it’s a safe place to be. Much credit for the orderly conduct of citizens, however, goes to the Men in Blue – and their technology.

That’s right. The New York Police Department (NYPD) uses a lot of technology, and among everything else, the force relies on big data and analytics to protect and serve its citizens.

The police force taps into data from previously unconnected sources which helps identify threats, catch a break in difficult cases, and even stop potential crimes.

Wait, what data? No, Facebook isn’t leaking them information and Big Brother from Orwell’s novel isn’t watching your every move – but there’s quite a data mine that the NYPD has access to.

They have access to certain kinds of emails, video and chat files, fingerprints and personal records from police investigations, licence and registration from the department of motor vehicles (DMV), and other public databases – including (conditional) access to information from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Using meaningful algorithms, the force can quickly identify trends and patterns that would be impossible if they continued to use traditional methods and techniques.

Predpol, Plantir, and data policing

By all accounts, the Men in Blue have been quite successful. In fact, other governments have followed in its footsteps. the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), for example, now relies on big data analysis to keep its citizens safe.

In 2016, the LAPD was using PredPol, a predictive-policing software and analytics program to fight crime. The result, according to a two year long study by UCLA crime scholars was astonishing:

PredPol seemed to have successfully predicted—and prevented—twice as much crime as human crime analysts did.

More recently, both the LAPD and the NYPD have moved to Plantir, a US$20 billion Silicon Valley startup that analyzes data for several law enforcement agencies.

The fact is, police departments around the world are working on using data to transform how it fights crime.

However, there’s a problem. The tech-driven process is often dubbed “data policing” and is seen in a negative light as proprietary algorithms protected by law make it difficult to decipher results and increases the risk of racial bias.

The fact is, it’s hard to make a case against data policing as its called. Moreover, the results it’s provided have been excellent. Experts seem to think it’s the future, and with artificial intelligence and machine learning playing a bigger role in tomorrow’s smart cities, data policing will become the norm.

Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, author of The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement, and professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia told The Crime Report:

“We have to come up with systems of accountability, and that may (involve) a chief of police or the city council, or whoever is funding this, explaining to citizens why they are using this technology, why they think it’s accurate, why they think it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars, and what they’re going to do to audit it, to make sure it is working in the future. I call those moments of public accountability “surveillance summits.” We need to have surveillance summits in every city in America,”