Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bad week for predictive policing - PredPol nightmare

Big data to the rescue - Does it work?
Last week was a very bad week for predictive policing, at least one version of it. It comes in the form of an article in the San Francisco Weekly News by investigative journalists Darwin Bond-Graham and Ali Winston. Their exposé, All Tomorrow's Crimes, reported on one company - PredPol - as it markets its computer software to police departments across the county.

It reads like a PR nightmare for PredPol.

It starts innocent enough: "PredPol, short for predictive policing, is riding this wave of techno-mania and capitalizing on the belief... that there's a killer app for everything, including crime-fighting."

I have written on this topic for years. My main worry has been cost and reliability. A year ago I wrote on the predictive model by IBM that Memphis Police call Blue Crush. Two years ago I wrote  The Precog Paradox and three years ago Solving the City With Math.

And now there is a killer app for predicting crime? 

But then the SF Weekly News article takes a darker turn:

"PredPol has required police departments that sign on to refer the company to other law enforcement agencies, and to appear in flashy press conferences, endorsing the software as a crime-reducer — despite the fact that its effectiveness hasn't yet been proven."


I have no idea if any of that is true. But it does show that too many police executives and press outlets are not doing their homework. Where is critical thinking when you need it?


A year ago a police executive posted on this blog. He is a critical thinker who we need more of in police leadership. This is what he said:

"I sat through a presentation yesterday involving an algorithm-based program that attempts to predict future crime… It could very well be one piece of the problem-solving puzzle. It's something that should not be dismissed. 

It doesn't take the place of a human crime analyst. It doesn't eliminate the need for problem solving. And it doesn't reduce the importance of collaborating with others. It's not cheap, and it could very well tempt agencies to divert funds away from more effective crime reduction strategies…

…only time will tell."

With this news article, it seems it has.

Below is a Ted Talk with a presenter whom the SF Weekly article identifies as a PredPol "lobbyist". It gives you an idea of the PredPol message.