Will crime maps work?
I did what I suspect almost everyone will do if they log on: I put in my postcode, clicked and frowned.
The new Home Office crime maps allow users to input any place in England and Wales and see what reports of crime and anti-social behaviour have been made to local police within a mile of that point in the previous month.
Even though I have been looking at crime statistics for more than 25 years, seeing the dots relating to 1,672 incidents a mile from my north London front-door was quite sobering.
I could drill down to see the half dozen burglaries that were committed in my street in December alone, the robberies and car crimes, the hundreds of calls about anti-social behaviour that police have received from residents in my neighbourhood. I could see the faces of the boys and girls in blue who patrol my streets and, in some cases, the numbers to call them directly on their mobile. I could watch the CCTV clips of blurry silhouettes the police would like to talk to. I could see the date of the next beat meeting when I would have the chance to discuss any concerns.
It is an impressive piece of technology but its real importance is as a key-stone in the architecture of David Cameron's "post-bureaucratic age". The prime minister has talked of turning accountability on its head: instead of bureaucracies in Whitehall attempting to maintain or improve the quality of public services, the general public would be given the power to hold them to account.
The crime maps are a vital piece of the accountability jigsaw: in place of appointed experts sitting on police authorities scrutinising performance, local residents can use the information from the site to drive the priorities of elected police commissioners. But I do wonder whether it will work that way?
Lots of people will have a look over the next few weeks. Like me, they may be surprised at what they find. But will they keep using the site, going back every few weeks to check on the local crime scene? Will they turn up for public beat meetings and demand more effort be applied to, say, vehicle crime if they see a spike in the stats? Or will the system quickly become the province of the same people who sit on Neighbourhood Watch committees and resident associations now? Who will speak up for the concerns of those who don't have easy access to the internet, who don't have the time or the expertise to exploit the information?
I met some young mums in Windsor today, sitting with their babies in a café after toddler club. What did they think of the crime maps? None, I have to say, were enthusiastic and most said they simply didn't want all that information. They thought it might make people more frightened, push down house prices or provide information for burglars on where to find rich pickings. They didn't think they'd be able to make sense of all the data.
Research by Ipsos/Mori suggests these are common views. A recent poll found 60% want information on what police are doing to cut crime in their neighbourhood, but were far less interested in information on crime levels or police priorities. Only 28% had a particular interest in strategy, just 16% wanted to know who was in charge of policing their force area.
The National Policing Improvement Agency is optimistic, however. It recently conducted a randomised controlled trial to test the impact of crime maps and claims "the study was able to challenge the myth that sharing information with the public would increase the 'fear of crime'. In fact, information was found to improve people's perceptions of their neighbourhood and of the local police."
Ministers remain confident that the public will use the power that comes from access to information and police will do a better and more responsive job as a result. I am told there are plans to incorporate details of what happened in each crime, whether the culprit was taken to court and what punishment they received. This might well improve public accountability of the Crown Prosecution Service and judges. But I still need convincing that that is how it will turn out.
Few would argue that it is a bad thing for the public to be given information, but the question is whether they will be willing and able to use it effectively. Will people power help shape a safe, tolerant and fair society?