By Dale Peet, Senior Industry Consultant, SAS Institute, Cary, North Carolina; and Commander (Retired), Michigan Intelligence Operations Center
eospatial analytics—the use of geographical data to help forecast and solve crimes—is a hot topic in law enforcement agencies right now, but its use is nothing new.
Geospatial analytics were employed by agencies decades ago, although the particular techniques used are considered rudimentary now. Through the simple use of pushpins on maps, investigators could track incidents, such as burglaries and murders; look at the relationship between where the crimes occurred; and cross-reference these data with information available on known criminals in the same geographic location to determine potential suspects.
The same benefits of using this system from decades ago persist today: Analytics help investigators to visualize the situation by capturing data from disparate sources and compiling them in one place to facilitate understanding. The following is cliché yet true: A picture paints a thousand words. Rather than scanning addresses and names on reams of paper, an investigator views crime locations on a map along with information about criminals in the area. Seeing these data in the same place makes the job of identifying potential suspects easier.
Technological advancements over the past decade are generating new interest in geospatial analytics. Agencies at the local, state, and federal levels are asking what is possible with the technology and how they can employ analytics to solve and prevent criminal and terrorist activity in their areas.
Another contributing factor is the tremendous amount of data that exists from numerous sources. Agencies have significantly more data to comb through and translate; at the same time, they are faced with shrinking budgets and mandates to stretch resources, which can hinder them from effectively coordinating information and proactively maintaining public safety. For today’s criminal justice leaders, these are real challenges and are impeding a strategic path to enhanced community safety. Public agencies want and need reliable, timely, accurate data so they can work strategically and tactically to reduce crime and victimization, enhance public and officer safety, and optimize the allocation of finite resources.
So how does geospatial analytics help? It is relatively easy for someone to predict that a homicide will occur somewhere in a large city sometime over the next 72 hours or that a carjacking might take place. These types of crimes often occur in areas with a large population. Analytics can help agencies to identify geographies where these crimes are likely to occur based on trending criminal data or events that are taking place, especially if there is potential for civil unrest.
For example, during the Occupy movement of 2011, a number of assaults and robberies occurred simply because there were large groups of people in small areas. Some individuals in Chicago were upset that the G8 Summit, scheduled for May 2012, was moved out of their city, but movements such as Occupy and the protests they inspire will always present challenges for local law enforcement agencies. The city still needed to prepare for the NATO Summit, and officials had to prioritize their resources to reduce the types of crimes associated with large protests. Real-time visualization, predictive analysis, and geospatial analysis can provide those answers.
Quality analysis, however, takes time and requires certain skill-sets within an agency. Having talented, experienced geospatial analysts is one key. They build map layers using statistical information; some of the best agencies include real-time data in their mapping exercises so that commanders can see exactly what is going on at any given time.
Calls can be mapped for service, suspicious activity reporting, events, emergency management incidents, threats to agencies or water departments, traffic conditions, fire incidents, and so forth, and it is all dependent on which event the commander is currently focused. If there is a special event, such as the aforementioned NATO Summit, officials need to know the size of the expected crowds and what resources are available in the area. Thinking about these variables will help agencies assess response capabilities. The on-duty commander may need to access various layers of data so the information can be available at any given time.
One California police department has shown what agencies can achieve when they have the right data and the right people in place to perform successful geospatial analytics.
After a string of shootings took place in a specific area of this California city (SAS prefers not to use the agency name), the police officers entered the locations of each event into a geographic information system (GIS). They also entered the date and the time that each shooting occurred and created an overlay map that displayed all the information together. The information generated on the map revealed a pattern of criminal activity, and the force started increasing the number of officers on patrol in the areas where they had predicted the next shootings might occur. After these changes were implemented, the number of shooting incidents in the city declined.
This is a real-life demonstration of what is possible when geospatial analytics are used for crime forecasting. These success stories can be replicated across the country as more agencies embrace the technology. The challenge is the technology that is available right now is new to law enforcement, and officials are just starting to learn how they can better use it to inform their efforts in the future.
An example of how these techniques are used can be demonstrated through the relatively recent phenomenon of flash mobs.
The growth of the Internet, social media sites, and mobile technology have made flash mobs possible, as people can easily communicate with one another to plan an event they participate in simultaneously.
In Chicago, Illinois, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, police are working to prevent recurrences of flash mob crimes that have taken place in recent years. In these cases, it was found that social media had been used to coordinate criminal activity.
Peaceful flash mobs occur when people read Twitter messages and gather quickly in one location for an innocuous activity and then disperse just as fast. The difference here is that some groups of people orchestrating these new mobs have criminal intent. For example, teenagers have used Twitter to notify each other so that they could meet at stores on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. They were then able to overwhelm private security with the sheer number of people involved in the mob as they launched a brief and well-coordinated merchandise grab. There also have been reports of similar crimes that rely on social media communications to target individuals for robbery in a precisely timed, violent attack.
The good news is that so-called digital fingerprints are providing law enforcement with critical tips and leads on criminal activity, such as the location of a flash mob with criminal intent, gang activity revealed through social media posts that brag about their involvement, and photos that can serve as evidence. Yet most law enforcement agencies need to improve monitoring or their use of social media sites to gather intelligence.
New analytics technologies exist that can pore through huge amounts of social media data to uncover locations and patterns and analyze sentiment. Social media analytics (SMA) can continuously monitor online and social conversation data to identify important topics and content categories. In addition, some estimates are that less than one-half of all Twitter traffic is in English.1 SMA technology can analyze content written in any major language.
Predictive analytics can be used to see a criminal threat develop, view where the threat may exist, and allow law enforcement to quickly intercede to prevent a crime from occurring. With analytics employed, it is possible to identify the threat before the incident unfolds.
From a predictive perspective, when an individual tweets or posts information about a target, a crime, and a specific time, intent is apparent. It does not cross the line to an overt act of conspiracy until people arrive at the location and commit the crime. When people agree on a criminal plan and put the plan into action, it becomes a violation of law, and arrests can be made as long as probable cause exists. People’s right to peaceful public assembly cannot be breached. However, this kind of interdiction is going to occupy an increasingly important role for police departments when criminal intent is stated via social media. The key is monitoring and analyzing the data in near real time, and analysts who are monitoring social media should share information with local law enforcement as quickly as possible.
While the preceding examples demonstrate how large law enforcement agencies are and can be putting analytics to work, any agency, regardless of size, can benefit from the use of geospatial analytics.
Large organizations such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will realize the full range of benefits from employing a quality analytics system. As a federal agency, the FBI possesses tremendous amounts of data and the resources available to input, analyze, and translate information so it can be useful for a criminal case. But even small law enforcement agencies, including those with fewer than 25 police officers on staff, can benefit from analytics.
Of course, agencies that choose to can get by with the simple pushpin-and-map method discussed earlier. But, if they are trying to implement crime forecasting and high-level analytics, agencies need technology to contribute to their success.
That is not to say that every agency should just jump in and invest in new technology right away. There has to be a level of preparation to make the system a viable asset.
The right staff—that is, a team of individuals who know how to operate the system and a trained GIS analyst who can interpret the data—must be in place. In addition, officials need to have a good mapping application installed that allows users to develop their own map layers with information that comes in from the myriad sources that are available.
Another important piece is to have access to the proper data sets to build accurate map layers and identify exactly the information an investigative team is seeking.
Even with all of this in place, agencies still have to ensure that they are working with good data. A solid data integration and management foundation must be in place to effectively use geospatial analytics. Bad data on a sophisticated map are still bad data and can negatively impact an agency.
Once all of these factors are in place, a law enforcement agency can start to realize the inherent benefits of a quality analytics system, including
- sound, robust data that allow criminal justice leaders to allocate resources more effectively to guide prevention, intervention, and suppression tactics;
- streamlined information management that provides a foundation for sharing knowledge throughout the criminal justice system (by seamlessly integrating all data, the agency gains one single version of the truth); and
- sound data that foster informed decision making among leaders and investigators and promote an enhanced tactical and strategic response.
There also are cost-saving opportunities. Agencies can assign and allocate the correct amount of support to handle specific events, saving money on staffing, transportation, and other resources.
Further, once an agency has built its maps, officials can modify the maps without recreating them. Those who still rely on pin maps use it once and then it is gone, along with the valuable information that was gathered. With a high-end GIS component and data integration, gathered information is available for future use without having to put in the time and the money to replicate the map.
Smaller agencies that want to upgrade their internal systems but need time to prepare for the transition can start using the technology right away by tapping into state fusion centers. Most fusion centers are working diligently to move toward geospatial analysis. Up until now, this tool has been an untapped resource that can provide smaller agencies with assistance.
It is true that not everything can be thrown on a map. But, with a good set of data, a display of the appropriate layers on the map will help relate concepts and assist in analysis of various hypotheses. Geospatial tools are becoming a critical component in modern law enforcement intelligence analysis, and during the next five to ten years, law enforcement will see great advancements in how the technology is used in the field to improve public safety. ♦
1Joanne Taylor, “Social Media in the Battle for Public Security,” publicservice.co.uk, September 12, 2011, http://www.publicservice.co.uk/feature_story.asp?id=17273 (accessed April 19,2012).
Please cite as:
Dale Peet, "Fighting Crime Using Geospatial Analytics," The Police Chief 79 (June 2012): 46–48.