Friday, March 26, 2021

Social life without a car

Queensland, Australia - rural environments have unique transport challenges  

by Tarah Hodgkinson

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to chat with folks living in one of Northern Queensland’s islands in Australia. While speaking to local Indigenous leaders and community members about safety and liveability, I was struck by one particular issue they raised: transportation. 

Over the years we have posted many blogs on urban transportation and how it enhances liveability, including some creative innovations in the harshest climates. This time the story emerged from rural environments. I heard that it was often difficult for residents to find transportation to attend health care appointments, pick up groceries, visit with friends, and attend local events. Typical public transit such as buses or trains were not an option, because the population was small and very spread out. 

Rail lines in the town of Roma, Australia 

The issue resonated for a few reasons. 

First, in many of the rural communities I’ve worked with in recent years, I hear stories such as local kids unable to get to after-school activities or no access to basic health care and affordable food because they couldn’t get to their doctor or shops. In North Battleford, Canada, for example, clients of the local shelter explained that despite being able to get a ride into town for services, they were unable to find transportation home on the same day, leaving them stranded. 

Second, this issue was particularly important for older individuals. When our team partnered with the huge non-profit AARP a few years ago to run a SafeGrowth Search Conference in New Orleans, we learned quickly that transportation issues restricted access to necessary services and raised issues of safety for vulnerable populations like the elderly. 

Third, transportation issues also affect those living with disabilities. During my time with the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, I learned that many of our clients lacked accessible transportation, aside from a bi-weekly accessibility bus, leaving them isolated and unable to leave the house. 


Often called transport poverty, the inability to access affordable and reliable transportation can result in a number of social issues. For a once-rural kid like myself, it often meant a lack of opportunities to engage in extracurriculars that offer pathways for success. Transport poverty also leaves many individuals feeling isolated and unable to engage in their community - one of the essential quality of life messages in 3rd Generation CPTED.

In some locations, informal networks emerge to create solutions to this issue. In the Australian town of Roma, Queensland, a local Indigenous elder spent most of her day driving local kids around to meetings and to school. 

At the MS Society in Ontario, there was an informal network of volunteers and other support staff who offered rides and helped people get to appointments and other things they couldn’t do without the accessibility bus. 

These stories are inspiring and remind us of the innovative and creative ways people come together to overcome issues in their neighbourhoods and communities. But there are more formal ways of making transportation easily accessible in order to allow people opportunities to build new networks and relationships and participate fully in their communities. 

Decent sidewalks and bike lanes make a big difference

For example, Demand Responsive Transit and Flexible Integrated Transport Systems offer a flexible and shared service that allows people who live near to each other to share transportation when buses or trains are not available or physically accessible. These systems allow users to pre-book transportation, meet at their home or nearby and travel to selected locations like shopping, health and community facilities or transportation hubs. 

Essentially, it is like a big taxi for people in your area, but far more affordable by using a standard low fare (public transit focused) and can be easily accessed through phone technology like apps. These kinds of programs are used in parts of Europe and Australia. 

Public transportation should be affordable and accessible to everyone. It allows us to connect and engage fully in our community, while also accessing services to improve our health and quality of life. And after a year of COVID-19 – it might be more important than ever. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Summoning the demon - AI in law enforcement

1955 IBM Supercomputer - 24,000 lbs, vacuum tubes, and state-of-the-art.
Today it fits into your pocket - photo Creative Commons

 “I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. I mean with artificial intelligence we’re summoning the demon.” 
— Elon Musk at MIT’s AeroAstro Centennial Symposium

by Gregory Saville

A number of years ago I partnered with my friend, brilliant computer scientist friend, Nick Bereza, and we created an automated critical infrastructure protection software called ATRIM. Later, I did a stint with a tech startup in security. Thus, I was introduced into the glitzy world of tech and software development tradeshows. 

I saw firsthand an industry both exciting and volatile. Competition was fierce and missteps led to demise. Along the way, I discovered the unspoken hierarchy in the security technology world. Occupying the bottom were the junk science startups armed with a veneer of techno-gibberish. At the top was the bigboy of the high-tech playground: AI – Artificial Intelligence. At that time, security & law enforcement AI was little more than theory and conceptual White Papers. 

No longer. 

Hal 9000 AI computer - 2001: A Space Odyssey
- photo Creative Commons

There is an important math concept in the AI world known as the Laws of the Logarithms.

Logs are math functions used to speed up computations. One example is Moore’s Law which states that computer processing speeds double every two years. Thus, 10 units of computer memory become 20 and two years later become 40. In two decades those 10 units multiply at an exponential rate into 10,240… a thousand times higher. Logarithmic growth is the difference between narrow-AI (Apple’s “Siri” or Amazon’s “Alexi”) and deep-AI (Hal 9000 or Ava from Ex Machina) 


Sophie the Robot from Hansen Robotics was first activated on February 14, 2016, as a robotic allegory of AI. Her accomplishments as an independent, thinking machine are well documented. She sports “scripting software, a chat system, and OpenCog, an AI system designed for general reasoning”. In other words, she can chat with you on any topic, interpret ideas, and learn from one conversation to the next. 

AI experts tell us that Sophie is not conscious and is still responding based on a network of algorithms. One expert calculated her level of consciousness at about at the level of a single cell protozoa – hardly the stuff of Terminator. Deep AI is at least 200 years away, or so we are told.

I hope they told the Laws of Logarithms.

Cosmologist and theoretical physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking.
One of  the smartest people in the world warned us about AI
- photo courtesy of NASA


A colleague recently forwarded research on AI in Law Enforcement and it rekindled memories of those AI White Papers at the tech trade shows from not so long ago. Today they go by titles like “Artificial Intelligence and Robotics for Law Enforcement” and “Artificial Intelligence and Predictive Policing”

They are written by groups like Interpol, the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, and funded by groups like the US National Science Foundation, names with considerable gravitas. They take AI in law enforcement and security seriously. 

They describe new technologies, some of which echo the similar junk science and techno-gibberish I saw years ago. The technologies they describe are mostly narrow AI – voice recognition, simultaneous location and mapping software, patrol drones, and predictive policing. They barely qualify as AI. None reach Sophie’s level of sophistication. So nothing to worry about, right?


Maybe…maybe not! Consider Predictive Policing. PredPol sends patrol officers to areas that it predicts will become an issue in the future. It uses weekly police calls for service to estimate where crime will happen. But calls for police service only show up in police files when residents call the police – and many minority communities will not call the police for fear or distrust. So areas of high crime, where fearful residents remain behind closed doors, never get police via PredPol since those police units will be sent elsewhere. That’s not exactly fair and equitable police services. 

To make matters worse, training for Predpol officers does not include what they should do differently when they get to the predicted crime hotspot. For example, if poor lighting is creating vulnerable areas for muggers, patrol officers are not taught Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design tactics to reduce opportunities for future assaults. Thus, if they find no one at the predicted hotspot, PredPol officers simply drive on to the next call. That’s not exactly intelligent policing, artificial or otherwise.

PredPol has even been criticized for amplifying racially biased patterns of policing... and all this considers the problems from only one form of narrow AI. Can you imagine the kinds of catastrophes that might unfold if things go wrong with immeasurably more powerful deep AI within law enforcement? 


Do law enforcement leaders dream that they can somehow control a sentient and fully conscious deep AI system that is immeasurably smarter than they are, linked globally to databases around the world, and capable of out-thinking and out-strategizing them? 

If so, watch the Academy Award-winning film Ex Machina and see how that turns out.

Some very smart people worry about the danger of deep AI – people like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates. And in law enforcement and security, AI is the ultimate Faustian bargain! Is it really an intellectual cache worth cashing in on?

Friday, March 5, 2021

De-policing, COVID and crime - Rebuilding a great city

Denver skyline and Rocky Mountains
- photo Sheila Sund, Creative Commons

by Gregory Saville

Metro Denver is my home. As far as cities go, it’s a pretty decent place to live. On the western edge of the city lies the panoramic Rocky mountains and to the east, the Great Plains unfurl for almost a thousand miles. Metro Denver is one of the fastest-growing tech scenes in the country and it hosts the 2nd largest aerospace industry in the country. 

Yet all that means nothing if violence and crime compromise livability and street safety. So what is happening crime-wise? If we don’t know what is going on, how can we improve the quality of life?


The Denver Post newspaper recently used COVID and de-policing to explain crime fluctuations last year. On one hand, Denver had an explosion of homicides, from 63 in 2019 to 95 last year. On the other, certain crimes flatlined and dropped. The COVID pandemic, says the Post, did not seem to influence violent crime in the city. “Motor vehicle theft was flat before COVID, yet jumped by 37% in the 11 weeks before Floyd’s death. Larceny theft went the other direction: it was up 18% pre-COVID and then returned to 2016-19 levels.”

The Denver police Chief points to social stresses and COVID-related frustrations. "There’s a lot of negative emotion taking place out there…I think that there is some crossover into what we’re seeing in the homicide numbers. Typically, folks would resolve issues without resorting to violence."

Colorado State Capitol building in downtown Denver

Some researchers point away from social explanations and instead use the routine activity approach and crime opportunity theories (it’s easier to break into vacant stores shuttered by quarantine rules). They suggest the pandemic has impacted the routine activities of people and, therefore, crime patterns. The increase in murder, they suggest, is caused by more criminal guns on the street and fewer cops doing proactive stops to find them. Of course, if that were the case, violent crimes like robbery would be increasing. 

They aren’t. 

Since last August the Denver robbery rate has dropped.

Further, routine activity approach suggests domestic violence and sexual crimes should go up since COVID quarantines keep more people indoors. Because domestic violence incidents emanate from behind closed doors in residential areas, more opportunities should produce increases in those crimes. 

They don’t. 

In Denver, domestic violence and sexual assault have declined 16% and 39% respectively.

Routine activity is a case of wanting to have your theory-cake and eat it too. Perhaps we should rename it “the-theory-that-really-isn't-a-theory-of-some-selected-crimes-but-not-others-in-some-cities-but-not-other-cities”. 

Naw, that title doesn’t work. And that would not really be an explanatory theory but rather more of an after-the-fact travelogue of what I saw on my summer holiday. 

Post-modern downtown architecture


What about de-policing, when police retreat from proactive crime prevention due to the BLM protests and racial unrest. For some reason, newspapers equate traffic stops with “proactive crime prevention”. In any case, the Denver data shows traffic stops have little impact on overall crime. The graphic in the Denver Post article actually shows the opposite – as traffic stops decrease, so too does crime. The truth is that most crime reports emerge from after-the-fact crime reporting, not from traffic stops. 

The Denver Post article suggests there is a crisis of legitimacy between the public and the police and if people don’t trust the police, they won’t call them. If that is true, then crime rates should drop – which might explain Denver’s motor vehicle rates but not other increasing crime rates. And that brings us right back to cake-eating theory-making! Either de-policing increases crime, or it doesn’t. Or maybe it does for some crimes, in some circumstances, but not in others. Or maybe… oh, never mind.

Stick to the science. Theories need data and well-formulated hypotheses. The data suggest de-policing as a cause of crime blips does not work well. Neither does routine activity.

Higher density, transit-oriented design hub
development in Arvada, west of Denver


The Denver chief is probably right about social stresses from COVID cabin fever. Further, if you read this blog, you will know we've been saying for years that we must look elsewhere to explain crime blips. We need better prevention theory to rethink how we plan neighborhoods and create opportunities for healthy living that resists crime. We need more opportunities for pro-social behaviors and stronger neighborhood mediation and family support systems. We need local systems housed directly in the neighborhood where they are needed most, not centralized in city hall or police headquarters.

That falls squarely into community development and neighborhood planning more than criminology. It falls into the theory of SafeGrowth. Fortunately, some exciting new studies are recommending some new directions for researchers.

Urban green spaces between downtown towers

Martin Andresen and Tarah Hodgkinson’s latest study points the way for future academic theorizing. Their latest article, Environmental Criminology, Design and Victimization: What We Know, How We Have Failed, and Where We Need To Go, does a great job at throwing down the gauntlet for future researchers.

“If the focus of environmental criminology is to create specific and effective prevention strategies, these strategies need to be inclusive of all people. …For example, planning methodologies such as SafeGrowth integrate the learnings of environmental criminology with social and contextual concerns to create inclusive strategies with and by local residents that shift away from crime control for the few and toward inclusion, safety, and most importantly livability for the many."

Well done, Martin and Tarah, for pointing academic research towards a more productive future. We have much work to do.