Crime maps: Simon Jenkins has persuaded me

I’ve been a bit ambivalent about the idea of crime maps, both because of the many categories of crime missing completely from them and also because the provision of a map in itself risks being seen as the final step rather than a preliminary step in making government more accountable and responsive to the public.

But that ambivalence was ended by Simon Jenkins. Not quite in the way he expected, I suspect, for his piece last week arguing vigorously against crime maps ended up persuading me that they are a good idea. That is because all but one of his main points strikes me as having the argument back to front.

First, Jenkins expresses surprise that someone should have decided to publish such information. But that’s the wrong way round. The question about such information generated by public services should not be “do we release it?” but “is this one of the rare exceptions where we shouldn’t release it?” For someone who has often argued against secrecy in the public sector in the past, saying the default should be “don’t let the public know!” is an odd position for Simon Jenkins to take.

Second, he complains that much of the data is wrong. That’s true, in particular the allocation of some crimes to nearby streets in a way that doesn’t make sense (such as recording crime at Heathrow Airport next to residential streets near-by). But data about what crimes are happening and where is meant to be used for intelligence-led policing day in, day out all round the country. So having large numbers of public eyes crawling over data pointing out mistakes is not a bad move; it’s a helpful improvement in the data that the police should be using for their work and others should be using to hold them to account.

A West Midlands police station. Photo credit: ell brown on FlickrThird, he warns that information is power. Well yes, but as information about where crimes are taking place is in the police’s hands anyway, the question is whether the power that arises from that information should be securely locked away in their hands or that power spread more widely. What Jenkins doesn’t do is make a convincing case why such power should be concentrated and secreted away in the hands of the police.

Four, he mocks the idea of comparing information from around the country, citing the case of the National Audit Office discovering that the price paid for boxes of A4 paper in the local government sector varied from £6.84 to £14.79. If the result was a national government rule on what price should be paid, such mockery would be justified.

But providing a public yardstick against which people can judge whether or not they are getting good value for money is actually a very positive move. Having worked on both sides of the fence – both purchasing goods and services for the public sector and supplying goods and services to the public sector, I’ve often come across examples where having great knowledge about what sort of price people should expect to pay would have saved money. Using public yardsticks, moreover, is often a much more preferable route to the alternatives such as trying to micro-regulate.

And finally, he makes the one point I agree with – that the crime maps are greatly limited by the narrow range of data included in them. That, though, surely is a reason to having better maps in future rather than to abandon them altogether.

So in the end, thanks Simon – you’ve helped me make up my mind.

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