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"Changing the Game in Law Enforcement" - How Big Data Can Make the Difference

30/09/2013 14:53 BST | Updated 27/11/2013 10:12 GMT

It's a tough challenge for law enforcement worldwide. Severe spending cuts mean budgets are getting tighter and resources scarcer. Yet, they are expected to deal with these cuts and still deliver an equal if not higher level of service than before. So how do they address the challenge? Part of the answer lies within the very heart of the agency itself - the data they hold. In combatting the impact of the cuts, the variety of data that law enforcement is required to hold; from crime records to number plate recognition data to HR and Training records - could potentially be their greatest asset. If this disparate data is combined and analysed effectively it can unlock the insight forces need to achieve the efficiencies required of them.

If properly exploited, this 'big data' goldmine could provide valuable insight for the Police, allowing them to do more with less and helping drive efficiencies. Unfortunately, agencies are not exploiting the full value of the data they have. Most are still working with isolated systems. Data is often held across a vast array of standalone systems making it difficult to get a holistic view, or use effectively.

The good news is most agencies understand this has to change. They realise they need to find a way of using the big data they hold to streamline their own operations internally and get a holistic view of criminal activity. In doing this, the first step must be to understand that data has limited value in isolation.

A data platform that enables information to be viewed and analysed holistically, whether physically located in an HR, crime or number plate recognition system, has to be the foundation. Once this is in place, Big Data Analytics can be applied to extract insight and provide value.

Of course, advanced analytical techniques have been used in finance and retail environments for years to achieve efficiencies and increase profit margins. The same techniques can and should be applied to law enforcement to achieve similar results. For example, agencies could be analysing all available data to understand crime patterns and keep officers focused on the top crime prevention priorities, understand where duplication is occurring and target resources most efficiently. Equally, rather than having to hold daily briefings, agencies could use big data analytics to push briefing information in real-time to officers on the beat depending on their physical location - so they are only receiving information that is actually relevant to them.

However traditional analytical techniques are often not sufficient in the new online world. Gone are the days when most data was held in nicely structured formats, within relational databases. Today, a lot of it is unstructured text in the form of word documents, transcripts, witness statements or internet chatter. This kind of data is potentially really valuable to law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, in the past, they've had to invest vast amounts of time and resource in manually going through this data to make sense of its content and extract the useful nuggets of information from it.

Today this is changing fast thanks to the latest advancements in text analytics. Sophisticated linguistic rules and statistical methods can evaluate text just like a human mind - minus the inconsistency and ambiguity. The latest text analytics technology automatically generates keywords and topics, categorises content, manages semantic terms, unearths sentiment and puts everything in context.

By applying text analytics, agencies can start to extract intelligence from unstructured data and thereby turn it into a more structured format which can then be analysed together with their structured data. This is really 'changing the game' for hard-pressed law enforcement agencies as it means they can now exploit all the data they hold, not just the structured content, and as police officers will testify, it is often the text, such as witness descriptions, that contains the most valuable intelligence.

Analytics is the Key

From the point of view of the agencies themselves though, the real value add of Big Data Analytics is that you don't necessarily have to know what you are looking for before you start. With the latest advanced analytics technology, officers don't have to rely on the need to ask specific questions or run specific queries.

The analytical techniques will model the data and push information of interest back to the end user. Analytics can sweep across all of the data and identify areas of interest for further evaluation, understand all the networks in the data and highlight anomalies or suspicious patterns. This can then be worked through a further information process to determine if it is viable intelligence, effectively converting Big Data into actionable intelligence.

To do this they must start deploying the right technologies to extract as much value as they can from that data. Without the right tools, pinpointing data that might potentially be of use would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. With the right solutions, law enforcement can sift out information that is irrelevant to them and highlight areas of interest, whether that be to achieve efficiencies or drive preventative policing strategies or investigations.

In the future it is going to be increasingly critical that law enforcement agencies start seeing 'Big Data' as an opportunity rather than a problem and start using that data to drive the efficiencies they so desperately need in the current economic climate.