Can Big Data predict crimes you’ve yet to commit?

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Big Data

“I’m placing you under arrest for the future murder of Sarah Marks, that was to take place today…”

So began Minority Report, the 2002 film about a team who arrested individuals before they had actually committed a crime. The methods in the film were science fiction, but a revolution in Big Data, using huge data sets to reveal patterns and make predictions, promises to bring such fantasy closer to reality.

Using data in such a way is nothing new, but rising availability of the analysis tools brings that power to all new areas. By drawing on historical data and combining it with theories of human behaviour, it may be possible to predict where and when crime might happen, and be there to stop it. Police in Kent have already implemented a system which directs officers to areas as small as 50m2 that have a high predicted risk of crime. Similar systems used in the US have seen decreases of 19% in burglary, battery and assault in some areas, Kent police have more modest targets of a 3% reduction in crime, but even this would amount to 3,000 fewer crimes a year.

The potential of big data in crime prevention extends even further; Google recently awarded $3 million to three organisations combating human trafficking, supporting their project to expose the links and working of criminal networks, using data from emergency hotlines across the globe. And researchers at the Institute of Crime Science at UCL have applied big data analysis to simulating the 2011 London riots, using models adapted from epidemiology (the study of disease) in the hope of predicting and controlling future events.

However, despite their effectiveness, some have questioned the ethics of such systems, which often rely on profiling individuals based on characteristics known to be correlated with an increased likelihood of committing crimes. Such systems, detractors argue, risk stigmatising innocent but ‘high-risk’ individuals.  Many also question where the trend will lead, fearing Minority Report-style arrests and punishment of individuals for crimes they are predicted to commit.

But the power of big data reaches beyond crime prevention; the ability of sophisticated data analysis software to spot links and patterns in data promises many benefits for society. In the future it will be relied upon to provide guidance for improving education, healthcare, and tackling issues such as poverty and climate change.

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