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Product Review: CrimeReports Neighborhood Central

I recently got a chance to tour the CrimeReports suite of web portal products, including Neighborhood Central, slated to be released in mid-September 2010. More on Neighborhood Central in a minute.  First, an introduction to CrimeReports, the largest crime mapping service in the world.

The company provides publicly-accessible crime reporting linked with agency mapping and comprehensive crime analytic tools. The Command Central interface gives an agency a tangible mapping and analytic tool that can produce spreadsheets, graphs and user-defined analytics. The pubic can see the user defined Crime Reports and Neighborhood Central side, which allows for information sharing and public information generation.

The problem with web-based crime mapping is as old as crime mapping itself. Police agencies create reports from incidents. Agencies find themselves gathering and mapping, which takes away from analysis, resource allocation, and crime solving. I can remember several instances of “a string of burglaries” in my agency where actionable information was too stale for crime solving. In fact, agencies often end up with presenting their complete analysis and fielding “...if you knew so much, why didn’t you do something?” questions, even from their own officers.

Making Actionable Decisions
If an agency is still locked in the Orient phase of the OODA Loop, the intelligence gathered from the material is either stale when action is taken, or never acted upon at all. Either way, not good.

With this product, law enforcement agencies can publish what they want to be seen by the public view. In essence, it provides the public with an elementary analytic tool. Although I have more background in criminal logical theory, I am familiar with crime mapping concepts enough to know that simple analytic tools are often the most effective for making actionable decisions.

Intelligence led policing data provides actionable decisions. Ever wonder why crimes are peaking at a certain hour and a location? This product allows law enforcement agencies and citizens to define data queries one day, 30 days or more at a time.

Command Central is capable of producing data that drives decisions about deployment, equipment procurement, scheduling, and resource allocation. The more precise the analysis, the closer the budget can be shaved.

Scott Kinzie of CrimeReports told me that he joined the company when he went to a public crime map and asked the question that most citizens ask when presented this kind of data: what do I do with it? As a consumer, his questions were about how to make his family safer, what areas to avoid and which areas to frequent.

When Kinzie met with the founder and CEO Greg Whisenant, he was introduced to the wide repercussions of the product. In some respects, it was less about providing crime information to the public and more about enabling the public to provide collaborative information. That is, it allowed citizens to inform law enforcement, provide tips, and allow a dialogue between law enforcement and the public.

Neighborhood Central
I got to play with Neighborhood Central, which is currently a beta and expected to launch as a fully-functional product in September 2010. Neighborhood Central is a map and community based information sharing portal that uses the best aspects of social networking to share information and turn it into a crime prevention tool. It can be used to organize a community, disseminate information from the local law enforcement agency and the neighborhood crime watch or even create alerts for the neighbors. Because of its powerful networking ability — officers can easily interact or access Neighborhood Central from their units — timely information sharing can take place.

CrimeReports is currently working on a version of Neighborhood Central that allows subscribers to register webcams. They can be strategically placed and accessed by neighbors, depending on the level of trust the camera owner allows.

CrimeReports is also integrating a method by which users can anonymously send tips to local law enforcement.

Why is Neighborhood Central a powerful crime fighting tool? There are two reasons, actually, both based on statistically-supported criminological theories. First, despite the popularity of crime scene shows, the most productive crime solving tool out there is a combination of luck, serious legwork, confessions, and information from informants. What a detective does long before a crime occurs is often more important. That is, creating and establishing networks of cooperation and ways a person can submit information has proven to be very productive. This is a combination of reputation, diligence, and savvy.

Neighborhood Central is effective at providing this efficient portal. Of course, this portal is only effective if the information goes both ways and the agency responds to the information it receives.

Routine Activities Theory
The second reason why Neighborhood Central is effective lies in a prevalent criminological theory called Routine Activities Theory (first proposed by Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson in 1979). A Routine Activities Theorist believes that a crime occurs when three factors take place in space and time. The three factors are motivated offenders, lack of capable guardians, and suitable targets.

Motivated offenders are people who are simply motivated enough, for whatever reason, to commit a crime.

Suitable targets are the objects of the crime and their suitability is based on many factors including the size of the target, the ability for the offender to use the target (sell it, use it or move it from one place to another). For example, jewelry is probably more suitable than large electronics simply because it can be pocketed or perhaps melted after it was stolen.

Capable guardians are persons who could be considered as crime preventative as they go about their routine activities. For example, a person walking to work may use their cell phone to report an auto burglary in progress. If the vehicle (suitable target) is in a frequented public place, there are more capable guardians that might encounter the crime in progress or serve as a deterrent to potential crime.

If we were to look at all three factors and how they interact, we can modify the predictability of a criminal act. For example, people have a tendency to look for the parking space closest to the front entrance of the mall. This does several things. First, the walk is shorter to the front door. More importantly, the closer to the front door, the more likely that shoppers will pass their vehicle in route to the front door. More people, more capable guardians.

Neighborhood Central creates and perpetuates a network of capable guardians. That is, if neighbors in a particular area create a cohesive communications barrier to crime, they become more capable guardians. If given a choice between operating unchallenged and operating challenged, any criminal offender will theoretically pick unchallenged. I used the example of a property crime, but Routine Activities can be applied to any crime event, including sexual and other personal crimes.

What does Neighborhood Central look like to the user? To me, it looks like a combination between Google Maps and one of those social networking sites. It looks like Google Maps because it uses Google Maps, a very recognizable and easily navigated interface. How does it work? On the map, the public user creates a neighborhood or joins one. The subscriber can literally draw a neighborhood (by encircling a particular area) to create a community. Information can be generated and shared within that particular community. The neighborhood can send individual messages (I'm going on vacation, I noticed someone in the area…) or share them via the social networking.

The law enforcement portal site has the same information as the neighborhood mapping, along with other levels of mapping. Law enforcement agencies can share in neighborhood dialogs (we are having a National Night out, several burglaries have happened in the surrounding neighborhoods) or send tailored law enforcement public service announcements.

Neighborhood Central has all of the important tools for police/community relations: crime mapping, analytic services, social networking and what I found to be a very user-friendly interface. Remember, the higher the level of social interaction in a particular neighborhood, the greater the crime deterrent.

Like other social networking utilities, users will be able to upload photos and use simple widgets like the crime mapping function. Imagine connected neighbors being able to quickly piece together a description of the persons of interest to the police.

I think that Neighborhood Central appeals to the social networking crowd but it also fills the community’s need to share information and see if their information is being used or ignored. Policing experts agree that trust is a component of the efficacy of a local agency. Neighborhood Central just may be the tool.

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