In business, as in life, we all have difficult decisions to make. But rarely are these decisions a matter of life and death.

In policing and intelligence, however, decision-making is fraught with risk. Simply put, making the wrong choice is not an option and getting it right first time is imperative.

Critical, tactical decisions can literally be the difference between life and death. For those in command – operational commanders, senior investigating officers (SIOs) and intelligence managers – supported by specialist teams that gather, develop and inform every course of action, getting the right information at the right time is absolutely crucial for good decision-making.

This process is underpinned by the National Decision-Making Model, which sits at the heart of UK policing decisions, both big and small. ‘Information and intelligence’ is the basic first step of this model, putting data at the centre of the process in order to ensure the safety not only of officers on the front line, but also the communities they serve and even the criminals who may aim to harm them.

Deciding on the correct course of action in operational environments is a high-pressure challenge, often with national and international consequences. Accessing data that is timely, accurate, relevant and properly assessed is critical to identifying and mitigating threat and risk. Meeting all of these requirements is at the heart of the challenges faced when working with data in a high-risk world. In short, when fighting crime and making communities safer, it’s not just criminal activity that needs to be subjugated – there are many data challenges to overcome too.

UK law-enforcement authorities have access to wide ranging datasets, including local and national policing systems and partnership data. It’s not uncommon for intelligence officers or researchers working in a high-risk area of policing – such as counter terrorism or organised crime – to have direct access to over 20 different sources of data. This data is commonly held in independent databases, the majority of which are populated and managed in isolation. This means that police officers and other staff frequently need to navigate an array of different systems to identify and extract relevant information. Even in the most critical scenarios, undertaking this in a timely manner can involve compromises – from having to prioritise datasets to monopolising team resources in order to complete the task in a timely manner.

The ‘go to’ experts

In a fast-moving operational situation, the thirst for up-to-date, actionable information can only be quenched at the speed by which that information can be delivered. In a high-risk environment, this data ranges from terabytes of seized-device data to witness statements and sensitive intelligence from partner agencies.

There can be stark differences in the structure and recording of data, so it often takes the knowledge of those who regularly interrogate the information to understand its many nuances. Not having a comprehensive understanding of ‘workarounds’ can lead to accidental misreporting of information or insights being missed. In a fast-moving, critical scenario, this is simply not an option. Having team members who are the ‘go to’ for specific systems or datasets is still seen as the best solution in most cases.

Joining the dots

With information coming from a variety of different sources, data is often shared in different formats and to differing degrees of detail. This can range from handwritten copies of unexportable information to spreadsheets consisting of thousands of entries. It’s the role of the intelligence analyst to join the dots and make sense of it all. In crude terms, this can be broken down into four stages: ‘clean the data’, ‘visualise the data’, ‘assess the data’ and ‘present the results’ to decision makers.

It’s not uncommon for analysts to become reluctant in-house Excel experts by virtue of the long number of hours they have to spend cleaning their datasets. This isn’t just a time-consuming task; such manual work also increases the likelihood of mistakes being made. It also means that valuable skills and knowledge is being wasted on low-value tasks when it could be put to better use analysing and sharing vital insights.

Overcoming the challenges

All of these challenges - and solutions - could be overcome relatively simply. As police forces and crime agencies continue along their data-transformation journeys, they’re not just uncovering efficiencies but also unlocking the hidden value in the resources they already have. When data is fused, made accessible and automated, the decision-making process is augmented further.

Police forces working in high-risk environments have been making great strides in overcoming these data challenges through greater levels of collaboration, identifying data solutions, developing national intelligence databases and standardising practices.

By combining cutting-edge technology and police expertise, new solutions are being created that optimise the decision-making process, often uncovering insights that couldn’t be seen before. By increasing the efficiency and flow of information from point-of-entry to end-user access, adding consistency the data held through migration projects and using dashboards and visual representation, officers and staff can spend more time adding value to data and less time manipulating it. And in an operational surge following a critical incident, the more people who can access the data, understand it and act confidently on it, the quicker and more accurately life-or-death decisions can be made.

But in a high risk world, just having more data at your fingertips is not enough. What our police forces really need is better access to more reliable data.

It is only by harnessing the vast knowledge and experience of those who interact with this data – and combining it with the expertise of technology experts who understand both the possibilities and the challenges – can we hope to make the right decision every time.

Thinking about your organisation?