Big Data and Mass Shootings

Holman W. Jenkins in the Wall Street Journal: “As always, the dots are connected after the fact, when the connecting is easy. …The day may be coming, sooner than we think, when such incidents can be stopped before they get started. A software program alerts police to a social-media posting by an individual of interest in their jurisdiction. An algorithm reminds them why the individual had become a person of interest—a history of mental illness, an episode involving a neighbor. Months earlier, discreet inquires by police had revealed an unhealthy obsession with weapons—key word, unhealthy. There’s no reason why gun owners, range operators and firearms dealers shouldn’t be a source of information for local police seeking information about who might merit special attention.

Sound scary? Big data exists to find the signal among the noise. Your data is the noise. It’s what computerized systems seek to disregard in their quest for information that actually would be useful to act on. Big data is interested in needles, not hay.

Still don’t trust the government? You’re barking up an outdated tree. Consider the absurdly ancillary debate last year on whether the government should be allowed to hold telephone “metadata” when the government already holds vastly more sensitive data on all of us in the form of tax, medical, legal and census records.

All this seems doubly silly given the spacious information about each of us contained in private databases, freely bought and sold by marketers. Bizarre is the idea that Facebook should be able to use our voluntary Facebook postings to decide what we might like to buy, but police shouldn’t use the same information to prevent crime.

Hitachi, the big Japanese company, began testing its crime-prediction software in several unnamed American cities this month. The project, called Hitachi Visualization Predictive Crime Analytics, culls crime records, map and transit data, weather reports, social media and other sources for patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed by police.

Colorado-based Intrado, working with LexisNexis and Motorola Solutions, already sells police a service that instantly scans legal, business and social-media records for information about persons and circumstances that officers may encounter when responding to a 911 call at a specific address. Hundreds of public safety agencies find the system invaluable though that didn’t stop the city of Bellingham, Wash., from rejecting it last year on the odd grounds that such software must be guilty of racial profiling.

Big data is changing how police allocate resources and go about fighting crime. …It once was freely asserted that police weren’t supposed to prevent crime, only solve it. But recent research shows investment in policing actually does reduce crime rates—and produces a large positive return measured in dollars and cents. A day will come when failing to connect the dots in advance of a mass-shooting won’t be a matter for upturned hands. It will be a matter for serious recrimination…(More)