Predicting Crime Hot Spots by Computer

In “minority report,” Tom Cruise headed a PreCrime unit that can predict crimes and stop them before they would happen. The system relied on visions of the future generated by three “precogs.” Not to give too much away for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, let’s just say that future could look a little foggy at times. The PreCrime unit, who had the mandate to carry out aggressive actions to prevent crimes, would thus turn into a source of evil itself.

It looks like we are making progress towards crime predictions in the real world. According to a report from the University of California at Riverside, Dr. Robert Nash Parker, a professor of sociology at the University and a senior researcher at UCR’s Presley Center for Crime and Justice Studies, has worked with the local police department to develop a system to predict where burglaries are likely to occur. The system has helped the police department to reduce thefts by 8% in the first nine months of 2013. The local Police Chief Richard P. Twiss proclaimed, “This is the wave of the future.” The report can be found at http://ucrtoday.ucr.edu/18856.

It should put everyone’s mind to ease that the system does not depend on hallucinations of oracles. So it is not subject to the perils created by the whimsical minds of supernatural beings. Instead, the system is powered by the far more reliable computers, just like every other intelligent things in today’s world.

By pouring through the data over the last 10 years, Dr. Parker discovered a correlation between the rate of burglary and truancy arrests. As truancy arrests shifted geographically in the city, burglaries followed one or two years later. This allows him to develop a computer algorithm to predict patterns of burglary over both time and space. The program helps the police department to identify hot spots and deploy police officers for proactive patrols.

The discovery also helps the city to reduce the number of prospective criminals, without obtaining a license to kill inchoate offenders. The police has launched several outreach programs, including a burglary and truancy prevention task force, which focuses on helping parents of out-of-control adolescents to get their children to re-enroll in school.

While the system may seem less magical once the curtain is pulled up, it represents a meaningful progress in crime prevention technology. Aside from telling us where to eat and what to buy, big data can sometimes be useful in tackling social issues.

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