A journey through the ages
We are currently in the midst of what is commonly referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This has seen a shift from the traditional engineered mechanical technologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries to digital technology and all the innovation this has engendered.
So how has that impacted policing, and more importantly, how can digital data play a part in helping fight against crime and benefit the general public?
1990s in-house designed systems – limited reporting ability, siloed data
Policing has had to undergo significant changes in the last 30 years to keep up with the increasingly complex technologies that are now a part of everyday life.
It’s worth briefly considering just how far forces have had to come on that journey from analogue radios and paper-based filing systems to today’s increasingly sophisticated crime fighting tools that deploy mobile technology.
Prior to the 1990s, information was largely stored on paper-based filing systems. Officers from that era will recall manually typing or handwriting crime reports on triplicated carbon paper with copies sent to various filling systems. Only small amounts of data were entered by data clerks into individual forces’ own mainframe computers. That effort would produce what would be considered in today’s terms as the most basic of statistical information covering crimes and road accidents.
Nationally, information was shared across the UK’s law enforcement agencies via the Police National Computer, which covered nominal records relating to criminal history, wanted and missing notifications as well as vehicle and property (such as machinery and heavy plant) records. In addition, Scottish forces also had their own nominal based criminal records system1, but compared with today’s digital capability the ability to share data more generally across any of the UK forces was otherwise quite restricted. Forces often relied on files being copied and physically transferred between agencies.
The development and deployment of ICT systems during the early 1990s saw a huge increase in the appetite of Chief Constables to oversee the rollout of new computer systems across forces. With that came an increase in the variety of data collected by police forces. Old fashioned manual collator techniques were replaced with shiny new intelligence systems. Station logbooks to record incidents were replaced with electronic versions. Custody leger books were replaced by custody systems providing accountability in terms of managing people in police custody. Systems to record evidence and lost and found property replaced the numerous books designed to record such items. All of these solutions helped improve accountability and security of data and led to the beginning of standardisation of data.
Many systems enabled officers to enter the data onto the systems themselves meaning users had access to records more quickly than having to request limited searches from a clerk.
The main issue was that many systems were designed in-house with the primary function of storing data, but few allowed the joining up of data, which remained siloed within its own system. A person in a system for recording missing persons would need to be manually checked against another system for recording warrants. Indeed, it became a skill in itself to query and navigate the multiple systems a force may have.
2000s - accountability and the implementation of the National Intelligence Model
Police chiefs came under increasing pressure to be accountable for their expenditure and needed to target resources where and when they were required to cut crime and reassure the public. As home computing and the internet took off, policing took a while to catch up. However, when a new model for intelligence led policing - the National Intelligence Model (NIM) - was launched in the early 00s, policing reform was well underway. It was finally recognised that the rich picture of data that organisations had collated over the last 10+ years was not being used to its maximum benefit. The need to identify and focus on key priorities drove an essential requirement to get data out of the siloed systems and have it inform the strategic and tactical direction of UK policing.
Commercial off the shelf products
The dawn of the new millennium brought yet more sophisticated technology. Most forces moved from local control rooms to larger divisional or force-wide control rooms with increasingly sophisticated toolsets that integrated call data with maps and resource deployment boards. Some systems adopted a ‘golden nominal’ concept, which provided a single view of a person throughout their involvement with the police, be this from missing persons or accidents, to custody systems and criminal justice services.
The availability of improved data sources provided forces with opportunities for better insight into the demand for and use of their resources. Some of the early adopters of commercial off the shelf products began to realise that, although the user interface and data storage seemed to fit the bill, the reporting capabilities of their systems was very limited. This resulted in a new specialism within policing and led to the rise of the analyst who could exploit new digital technology such as data reporting tools and geographic information systems to mine data and join up the siloed information. They could then produce an array of maps and reports on crime and intelligence subjects, and they became instrumental in the desire to make sense of the data captured on a daily basis.
2020s - data migration and business intelligence solutions
Policing has developed an appetite for improvement and strives to deliver better value against a background of budget pressures. Digital policing strategies across the UK have now replaced many of the disparate systems implemented over the last 20 years with modern systems that allow integration with mobile technologies. This not only releases officers from desks but enables faster data input and access, increasing insight into demand, trends and performance.
However, this process of upgrading systems can present other challenges, such as understanding which data is helpful in fighting against crime and which is superfluous. Guidance and legislation have changed since these early systems came into being and the requirement to be compliant with Part 3 of the Data Protection Act 2018 and guidance from the Information Commissioner brings a desire to take across only data that is necessary and proportionate. Many of the old systems had no weeding capability, and data maintenance to address data quality issues was often seen as a luxury forces could do without. This is where specialists in data migration can help. Working as a data partner enables those skilled in data science to extract what is relevant, transform it into a suitable format accepted by new data destinations, and load it into new systems with the minimum of disruption to business as usual processes.
A successful migration of legacy data is of vital importance as it mitigates the need to keep legacy datasets accessible and ultimately reduces costs and risk for the organisation.
Back to the future
It’ virtually impossible to implement digital transformation overnight, but with thorough preparation, communication and planning, it can be successfully achieved.
That process of change will bring benefits and insights into the data that organisations already have and will continue to cultivate. Improving data quality will allow data integration with internal and external datasets and provide an advanced capability to intelligently fight crime whilst delivering accountable policing.
The reality is that technology will continue to advance but, if we consider how far we have come and develop solutions that take the data that is valuable on that journey, organisations will gain long term benefit from meaningful data.
Whilst predicting the future can never be an exact science, the last year has seen increasing demand for instant information and people have become more interested in what the data actually means. People who had never previously looked at spreadsheets or charts have become armchair statisticians. It’s likely that demand will not diminish and the appetite for instant access to, and analysis of, data is expected to increase. If the data is in good health, it will enable forces to use it as an asset to help achieve their aims and objectives of preventing and detecting crime and keeping communities safe.
 The Scottish Criminal Records Office database, now the Criminal History System.