Big Data and public security

Babak Akhgar explains how data sharing can dramatically improve crime-fighting and public safety.

Sep 24, 2014
By Babak Akhgar

April 2009 marked the start of the first flu pandemic in more than 90 years involving the H1N1 virus – a mutated version of the virus that infected hundreds of millions of people from 1918 to 1920, as much as one-third of the world’s population at the time.

The 2009 ‘swine flu’ pandemic was first recognised in Veracruz, Mexico. Government agencies closed public and private facilities in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus. Those precautions came too late. An epidemic had been going on for months before it was officially recognised.

Because each infected person would infect an average of 1.75 others, the disease spread globally before the World Health Organisation and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention declared a pandemic.

It is hard to say how many lives were lost to this 2009 strain of the H1N1 virus. Case reporting was spotty and inconsistent, especially in areas with underdeveloped health care systems. Some researchers estimated that the number of global death toll reached 284,500, but it may have been as high as 579,000.

How many of those lives would have been spared if the earliest cases in Veracruz were recognised as the seeds of something bigger? Could the next outbreak be brewing somewhere undetected because we’re not connecting enough dots?

Endless potential

When we look at ways to advance the use of data and analytics for public security and safety, the potential has never been greater.

We now have the computing power to not only understand past events, but also to create new knowledge from billions of data points – quickly. In minutes, we can run analyses that used to take days.

Lifting the technology barriers has redefined what local, regional, national and global organisations can do with their data – and more importantly, what they can do when they share their data. Technology has advanced to the point where data can be integrated across agencies even when there are no common identifiers among systems.

Protecting the population with data

CENTRIC, a multidisciplinary research group within the Cultural, Communication and Computing Research Institute at Sheffield Hallam University in South Yorkshire, is involved in projects that use diverse types of analysis to address violent crime, cybercrime, terrorism and the preservation of public order. For example:

•The ePOOLICE project, (Early Pursuit against Organised crime using envirOnmental scanning, the Law and IntelligenCE systems), funded by the European Commission and involving a consortium that includes European law enforcement agencies, seeks to develop enhanced environmental scanning processes to identify future patterns of crimes. Central to the project is the development of an intelligent environmental scanning ‘radar’ that applies semantic filtering to identify even weak signals of emerging organised crime patterns, such as cannabis cultivation, human trafficking or cybercrime;

•The ATHENA project looks at social media – particularly on smart mobile devices – to empower the public to help first responders. For instance, in the recent Boston Marathon bombings, the suspects were swiftly identified in part through a massive, worldwide dissemination of information and photos via social media. Twitter, Facebook and other sites were all credited with helping to identify and apprehend the Tsarnaev brothers;

•The COuRAGE project, also driven by a partnership of law enforcement agencies, is defining a research agenda on cybercrime and cyber-terrorism in Europe. The goal is to determine how to protect critical European infrastructure against cyber attacks and misuse. A key focus is to combat terrorists’ use of the Internet to spread propaganda and recruit followers; and

•The Odyssey project looks at how analytical tools can identify patterns from pooled data about gun crimes, such as the gun used, the ammunition and the context of the crime. Law enforcement agencies use tools and applications to integrate gun crime data with their back-end systems to support more informed inve

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