Crime mapping: creating a false sense of security?

In recent years, two interactive maps have been published online which allows nyone to look up current crime rates in London. The Metropolitan Police launched their ‘Crime Mapping’ project in 2008; three years later the UK government backed the publication of a crime map of the whole of England and Wales, Police.uk. Both maps allow users to access recent crime data in any part of London. The Metropolitan Police’s map lets a user divide the city into boroughs, police wards and sub-wards, whereas the Police.uk map can be narrowed down to individual streets.
Both websites received press attention when they were launched. Although these articles debate the ‘pros and cons’ of the interactive maps, none seem to critically engage with the format or validity of the data provided. These maps are presumed to represent the ‘truth’, and not a socially constructed representation of the city that by its design highlights some aspects and obscures others. In the press, politicians and Metropolitan Police staff stated that maps like these would increase public safety, help communities to engage with the police, allow for a more accurate distribution of police resources and reduce public anxiety about crime.[1] The press also reported on concerns, both from politicians and the public. These included the fears that the anonymity of the victims of a crime would not be guaranteed, that housing prices would be reduced in areas which were reported to have ‘high crime’, and that inaccuracies or mistakes in the computer algorithm misrepresented actual crime rates.[2]
Despite the attention given to these potential issues with the maps, there has been no apparent questioning of the political implications of these crime maps; as long as the data is accurate and the privacy of victims is ensured, it is generally perceived as a positive development. This attitude does not acknowledge that maps have the potential to be used for political means. As Daniel Dorling and David Fairbairn explain, maps can be ‘about social control and are usually created to serve the designs of their creators rather than to inform ‘the public’.’[3] The maps are presented as reflecting an absolute truth. However, like any map, these maps construct the London streets in a specific way. Both maps, for example, group types of crime in categories, ostensibly so that victims cannot be identified by the information provided. But by using categories it becomes less transparent which types of crime are included, and which are not. Moreover, the use of categories gives the impression that all groups of crime together represent the total amount of crime, but that is not necessarily the case.

Both maps are based on data from the last few months, creating a picture which is apparently as up-to-date as possible. In reality, using this short-term data can be misleading. Looking at the total crime rates for the ‘West End’ ward on the Metropolitan Police map, there appears to be a big increase from November to December. But when one compares it with last years’ figures, this increase between the months appears to be expected, and is perhaps caused by the influx of tourists and shoppers in the holiday season. This might be the biggest problem with these maps: they provide a snapshot of a situation in constant flux and little background on exactly how these figures are collected, or what the possible social causes of these criminal activities are. Rather than questioning which social circumstances lead people to committing crime, the maps present crime in the big city as a given, and as something that the general public has the right to be informed about. Readers of the map are not encouraged to see it as a cultural representation, which should be interpreted accordingly. There is consequently no regard for the notion that these maps can encourage stigmatisation of certain social groups or areas of the city.
Rather than reducing public anxiety about crime, these maps can actually increases such feelings by not distinguishing between long-term developments and short-term peaks or troughs. Instead of seeing them as websites which help the public be aware of crime rates and police activity, I would argue that these maps are political tools which present the city in a way that is far from objective, and should therefore be approached with scepticism.

[1] See ‘Street-level crime maps launched online’, BBC News website, published 1 February 2011: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12330078. Accessed 17 January 2015; Jemima Kiss, ‘How safe is your neighbourhood?’, Guardian website, published 15 August 2008: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2008/aug/15/digitalmedia.ukcrime. Accessed 17 January 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Daniel Dorling and David Fairbairn, Mapping: Ways of Representing the World, Harlow: Pearson, 1997, p. 65.

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