Thought for the day:When too much information hampers the police

Hard-hitting IT columnist Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.These days the police are surrounded...

Hard-hitting IT columnist Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.These days the police are surrounded by hi-tech systems, but too often they can't see the wood for the trees because of the amount of information from many different sources they need to process.

Having said that, an effective knowledge management tool can be a very useful aid to police work. Some of you may remember a piece of software called Lotus Agenda. Although it was one of Lotus's more interesting products of the 1980s, it wasn't popular. But in many ways, it anticipated Lotus Notes as a free text database in the days when dBase and Paradox was really all you had to choose from.

What was good about Agenda was that you could take pieces of information such as "Bob drives a green car" and place it in a database.

You could then create "Views" for almost anything: "Green Cars" perhaps or "Green Cars & Cambridge", and Agenda would retrieve any and all information that matched such criteria.

On reflection, it's the kind of feature we take for granted on the Internet today, with search engines such as Google - "Simon Moores+Harley Davidson", perhaps - but it was years ahead of its time in 1989.

Unfortunately, Lotus Development killed off Agenda after version 2.0. It was one of the first good examples of a real knowledge management product.

I once showed Agenda to the police, who became quite excited by the idea. No more yellow Post-It Notes; somebody calls with information and you type a summary into the Agenda database.

The trick after this is to construct a view that makes some sense and distils the good information from the background noise, which is a human talent, or should be. After all, the police have had "collators" for years.

A good 12 years on and the police are surrounded by sophisticated software. The heart-rending tragedy of the search for the two ten-year-old girls and the eyewitness account of a taxi driver illustrate technology's greatest weakness, the surrender of common sense when information is processed into a computer.

Human beings can intuitively "perceive" what piece of information is likely to be more relevant than another and products, such as Agenda in its early days, help make sense of apparently random items or accounts.

Where it all goes wrong is when a human operator is given a vital piece of information, such as "I saw two girls in a green car struggling with the driver" and, instead of faithfully recording the details and then perhaps walking up to a detective and tapping him on the shoulder, with what should be a significant report, the operator moves on to the next call without comment.

In doing so, the operator surrenders any true sense of responsibility and intuition to the invisible intelligence of the software behind the keyboard.

Increasingly, law enforcement agencies are turning to computing as a more efficient means of achieving results. Huge amounts of data are passed through systems, and the Government would like the police and the intelligence agencies to have even more access to data to crunch in the search for evidence and patterns of unsocial and criminal behaviour.

Sadly, what seems to be happening is that the police are unable to find their way through the data at times and detection rates are at their lowest in living memory.

Clever software might be a remarkably efficient tool in the support of police work, but the presence of more policemen with the very human tools of personal initiative and intelligence still seems to remain the key to the conclusion of any successful investigation.

What do you think?
Are the police too dependent on technology? Tell us in an e-mail >> CW360.com reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.
This was last published in August 2002

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