Saturday, August 21, 2010

A West Coast Look at Predictive Analysis

UCLA Doing Research on Crime Fighting Predictive Analysis

Thursday's post explored the research being done by Dr. Richard Berk of the University of Pennsylvania with regard to predictive analysis and its application to criminal activity.

Today the Los Angeles Times reported on work being done by professors at UCLA regarding predictive analysis. According to the Times, predictive policing is rooted in the notion that it is possible, through sophisticated computer analysis of information about previous crimes, to predict where and when crimes will occur. At universities and technology companies in the U.S. and abroad, scientists are working to develop computer programs that, in the most optimistic scenarios, could enable police to anticipate, and possibly prevent, many types of crime.

Jeff Brantingham, a UCLA anthropologist who is helping to supervise the university's predictive policing project told the Times, "The naysayers want you to believe that humans are too complex and too random — that this sort of math can't be done."

"But humans are not nearly as random as we think," he said. "In a sense, crime is just a physical process, and if you can explain how offenders move and how they mix with their victims, you can understand an incredible amount."

George Mohler, a UCLA mathematician, makes the case that the time and place of past crimes can be used to determine where and when future crimes are most likely to occur. To do this, he argues, police need to start thinking of crimes the way seismologists think of earthquakes and aftershocks.

According to the Times, Mohler's theory stems from a peculiar aspect of crime. Much as an earthquake sets off aftershocks, some types of crimes have a contagious quality to them.

When a home is burglarized, for example, the same house and others in its immediate surroundings are at much greater risk of being victimized in the days that follow. The phenomenon is called an exact or near-repeat effect.

The same dynamic can explain the way rival gangs retaliate against one another. And, although it is harder to pin down in more complex crimes that are motivated by passion or other emotions, experts tell the Times it holds true there as well.

There are skeptics who, as in Thursday's post, invoke the movie "Minority Report" (the 2002 sci-fi film in which cops arrest people for crimes they are about to commit)as a prelude to the hidden dangers of using predictive analysis to combat crime. The LAPD is quick point-out that the technology will not turn the city into a real-life version of "Minority Report."

"There is the science of policing, and there is the art of policing," said LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who relies heavily on technology as the head of the department's counterterrorism efforts but remains wary of predictive policing.

Downing told the Times,"It is really important that we learn how to blend the two. If it becomes all about the science, I worry we'll lose the important nuances."

To read more:,0,7558446.story?page=2

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