Using Crime Data via APIs for Good… or Evil?

New updates to the UK Police API extend the possibility of using crime data to create innovative products and services. While many of the new mashups and services that could be created from using an extended, anonymized dataset of all crimes in the UK could have benefits for local citizens and businesses, there is also the risk that the data could be used to infringe on civil liberties.

The UK Police API allows access to a rich, anonymized dataset available by UK policing region, neighbourhood and can even drill down to a block by block analysis of crimes in any given area. The API is a standard JSON Web Service and uses HTTP GET requests. Extensive documentation is available, including examples of data requests.

The most recent API updates have included adding new crime categories by breaking down previously ‘catch-all’ category headings. For example, bicycle thefts and theft from person (pickpocketing) are now listed separately rather than as part of ‘other theft’. Major changes include the ability to bulk download CSV files of crime datasets and the addition of new search parameters available for some API methods.

While the apps directory of the Police API site shows some exciting mashups and app products that have been created using the API, use of crime statistics as part of a global uptake of Big Data is still in its infancy.

There is a potential for police and security to mine crime data and adjust patrol routes so they are on-the-ground at the times and in the areas with the greatest likelihood of crime. Security firms, locksmiths and alarm installation providers could market their services to households and businesses in areas of greatest need. Real estate agents could use crime data to show which of their properties are in safer neighborhoods.

But there is also the risk that the data could be used to restrict freedom of movement or presumption of innocence. According to Big Data by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, half of all US state prisons are already using big data to make predictions about who should be released on parole and who should be kept incarcerated. While it may make sense to use crime data via APIs to better allocate policing resources to areas of highest crime prevalence, there is the risk that this then extends to predicting crime based on big data and pre-emptively punishing citizens, Minority Report-style.

It can come down to how API developers create the new products and services from the availability of new tools like the UK Police API. As APIs open access to more data about how we live, developers will face ethical dilemmas like this on a more regular basis.

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