Information technology failures are a key reason why efforts to stamp out anti-social behaviour have failed for at least a decade. The failure to launch a national database on time, revealed by Computer Weekly last week, suggests the problems persist.
Anti-social behaviour (ASB) is one of the most politically contentious social issues facing the UK. Widely regarded, sometimes incorrectly, as a precursor and indicator of crime, dealing with it effectively is a key factor in public confidence in the police.
Official figures show 3.6 million reports of ASB were made in 2008/09. By comparison people reported 4.6 million crimes in the same period.
Cardiff University has found that those likely to suffer the greatest harm from ASB incidents were repeat victims and those with a long term illness, disability or infirmity.
A 2010 Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) investigation into how the police treat ASB found severe failings in definition, recording, analysis and response. These pointed to a failure of the information systems that the police used.
Denis O'Connor, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, said in March 2010 all forces had prioritised ASB. This was up from January 2010 when 20 forces cited ASB as a priority.
Despite that, only 22 out of the 43 police forces in England and Wales had IT systems that helped them to identify and prioritise repeat calls when the report was made, O'Connor said.
Just 16 forces could identify individuals' vulnerability effectively, he said. This fell to only 13 that could identify effectively those most at risk at the time the call was made.
"This leads to uncertainty of just what priority ASB should or could be given by police forces," he said. "It takes little imagination to understand the potential impact of limited IT systems and of decisions to 'grade out' calls."
Shortly after O'Connor's report, the HMIC commissioned Martin Innes, director of the Universities Police Science Institute (UPSI) was in Cardiff to help develop a new ASB response framework for police.
Innes found that South Wales had higher reports for both actual and perceived ASB than average, according to an HMIC report, Stop the rot, in September 2010.
Meanwhile, South Wales police had responded by starting development on what documents describe as a national database to record ASB incidents. The database was due to go live last September, but reportedly failed penetration tests designed to deny access to unauthorised users.
South Wales police have confirmed the existence of the database but have so far declined to reply to questions on its origin, development and operation.
However, the research suggests that police are anxious to collect data about repeat incidents, especially where vulnerable people are harassed, and to have that flagged during the call to report the incident.
According to HMIC, reliable analysis of data was hampered by inconsistent definitions of what constituted ASB, a repeat victim and a vulnerable victim. "We found five different definitions of ASB being used and many differing definitions for 'repeat victim', ranging from two reports in 12 months, to four reports in a month," it said.
Although the existence of the database is described in official documents, spokesmen for the Home Office, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the National Police Improvement Agency and others have expressed their lack of awareness. Unconfirmed reports have surfaced that suggest there could be up to eight similar databases.
A new study, Too many cooks, into saving public money by developing IT systems in one place and copying it to other jurisdictions found the approach potentially unhelpful.
Socitim, the local authorities' IT managers' group, which looked at 13 such projects, said better understanding of the value of information and how it should be managed was essential to avoid waste.
"Despite the fact that information was not a primary interest the evaluation studies from almost every one of them raise serious issues about information availability, quality, sharing and management," it found.
The same seems true of the ASB database. Safer South Wales, a police/community coordination group, expected to hear a progress report on the ASB database on 13 September 2010, three days after the original go live date. The meeting was to cover "the emerging policy principles and the outstanding challenges (including data recording and exchange)".
What lesson can be drawn from this project so far?
Anti-social behaviour is a raw nerve with the public. That makes transparency a primary factor in whether the ASB database will enjoy public support, firstly to finance it, and secondly to run it.
To identify repeat victims accurately, the database will store personal details of many vulnerable people as well as those of many who are unlikely to be convicted of an offence. Securing this information against unauthorised use must be a primary goal.
Bearing in mind that many of the people whose details are recorded are likely to be young (idle teenagers are a frequent object of ASB complaints), it would be wrong for such a record to follow the individual into adulthood, especially if there was no conviction.
The Information Commissioner's Office has eight principles that should guide the development of all databases that contain personal data. The ASB database should follow them scrupulously, both in letter and spirit.