In the Media

Flagship crime map website 'less useful than a newsletter'

PUBLISHED October 11, 2012

Surveys carried out by the Home Office found that many people did not want to wade through the large amounts of raw data on the street-by-street crime maps.

Some said the service, which has cost £500,000 so far, was a poor use of money in a time of austerity and that it could be better spent on recruiting more police officers.

New features that show "justice outcomes" only confirmed users' suspicions that very few criminals go to jail, while one force's real-time tracking of PCs merely showed "they don't seem to be doing a great deal".

The conclusions of the Home Office-commissioned study, carried out by researchers at the Policy Studies Institute and the Police Foundation, will be seen as a blow to the Government's "transparency agenda", which involves making far more official data available to the public online.

The report stated: "There is a need to think carefully about future enhancements to and related initiatives.

"The findings suggest that more information is not always desirable and can be counter-productive. Enhancements should be tailored so that the public finds them useful and easy to use.

"There is a danger that initiatives will lose public support if their relevance is unclear, particularly given the current climate of austerity."

When the website was launched in February 2011 it was trumpeted as a pioneering way to improve police accountability and allow citizens to find out about levels of crime locally.

It has since been updated to include crimes in shopping centres, parks and tourist attractions as well as residential streets, and also features basic information about how some offences were dealt with by courts or the police.

But interviews with 102 members of the public, a third of whom had previously used the website, revealed significant doubts about its value.

Some respondents said the figures were interesting but questioned what they could be used for.

It was claimed that the website contained "too much information" and that it was better to find out about crime elsewhere "such as local newspaper, newsletters from the police" or Neighbourhood Watch.

Conversely, others felt there was not enough detail to tell how serious particular offences were, or to make meaningful comparisons over time and across the country, while there was little information about crime prevention.

The new features that state how crimes were resolved were also found to be unsatisfactory, as they did not disclose if prolific offenders were still "at large" or "off the streets".

Some participants said the figures showed just how many people were "getting away" with crimes as "nobody gets locked up".

"Trailblazer" forces across the country also tried their own methods of sharing crime data with the public.

A state-of-the-art smartphone app developed by Surrey Police was criticised for including "too generic" updates on what officers were doing while a map of "bobbies on the beat" suggested police were inactive.

"When you actually look at them, they don't seem to be doing a great deal," one member of the public commented.

By contrast, a simple "Neighbourhood News" leaflet printed by Dyfed Powys was "more positively received" as its "purpose was clear" and it summarised crimes and police activity well.

A separate study on the non-emergency phone number, 101, found it was operating well although some callers wrongly believed it would offer a less professional and local service than 999.