Living by the Numbers: Big Data Knows What Your Future Holds

The End of Inspector Chance Things couldn't have gone more wrong for the car thief. As he was trying to break into a vehicle in an underground parking garage in Santa Cruz, California, a policeman happened to be sitting in an unmarked car just a few meters away, eating his lunch. The thief was arrested before he could complete his nefarious deed.

But the officer wasn't in the right place at the right time purely by chance. He was spending his lunch hour in the parking garage on that particular day, based on the recommendation of a computer program.

For the last two years, the city's roughly 100 police officers prepare for their shifts every day with instructions from both their supervisors and an algorithm. The program, which is constantly being fed all relevant data the police apparatus has to offer, calculates the probabilities of crimes, like burglary, robbery and car theft, being committed at certain times and in certain neighborhoods. Homicide has been excluded from the program so far.

The 15 most dangerous neighborhoods appear as rectangles on electronic cards. In two-thirds of cases, the predicted incidents actually occurred. "I would have been happy with only 10 percent," says Santa Cruz Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark.

Two professors, computer scientist George Mohler and anthropologist Jeffrey Brantingham, who specializes in crime scenarios, were instrumental in developing the predictive method of fighting crime. Their program is based on models for predicting the aftershocks of earthquakes.

Clark had accidentally heard about the two professors' idea in early 2011. Together the three men set up a pilot project. They fed eight years of crime statistics into the program, as well as countless other pieces of potentially relevant data, like weather statistics and proximity to parks and bus routes. In addition, the program places each crime in relation to every other crime.

High-Tech Cops

"There were many skeptics at first, including me," says Clark. "But the numbers speak for themselves: It works." According to Clark, burglaries declined by 11 percent and car theft was down by 8 percent in Santa Cruz after the new crime prediction system had been in use for one year. In addition, the arrest rate in Santa Cruz went up considerably -- by 56 percent.

The entire police force now uses high-tech equipment. All cops carry smartphones and tablet computers to access the web-based prediction program while on patrol. They are encouraged to spend time in the marked zones whenever possible. Clark can tell many stories about how his officers have caught burglars and thieves red-handed in the predicted zones.

The two data experts, Mohler and Brantingham, have since started a company and are marketing their product, Predictive Policing, worldwide. In the United States alone, more than a dozen police departments have already introduced the software, including Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago. Clark was recently in England to help the police in Kent launch the program.

The military and intelligence communities also employ the power of data analysis. For instance, Big Data played a key role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, as American author Mark Bowden describes in his book "The Finish." According to Bowden, database analyses were partly what ultimately led investigators to Abbottabad in Pakistan.

Improving Security

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