The importance of good information is widely recognised within the police. Constabularies throughout the UK are undoubtedly all in favour of regularly cleaning data, but a bit like regular exercise and healthy eating, it's not always something that happens as often as it should.
However, the scenarios that arise from a poor data strategy are not helpful in fighting crime or in fact the public's perception of the police.
This includes records logged incorrectly, inaccessible archives, limited visibility of previous offences and even identity fraud. Put sharply, mistakes that arise from incorrect data put lives at risk as police forces cannot confidently and swiftly carry out their work.
While data quality can be a headache for any organisation, in the police force, the challenge is magnified. Unfortunately, too often the people that the police have to deal with are less than entirely honest, meaning that we have to correct more than just the usual human errors captured in records such as mistyping and spelling.
Police forces have to contend with criminals giving false information including incorrect date of birth or names, fuelling further database decay.
Despite these difficulties, constabularies need to be absolutely certain that their information is both correct and easily interpretable to succeed. This is why forces are introducing various initiatives to improve the accuracy of the records they hold.
Good policing comes from good intelligence, and that comes back to having access to accurate information in order to make a link between the crime and the offender. With over 2,270 staff serving a population of 560,000, Gloucestershire was one of the first forces to recognise it had problems with data quality.
In 2002, Gloucestershire Constabulary set up a programme to promote effective and efficient services and deal with data quality. It installed new software from supplier SAS to improve the quality of data and lay the foundations for more accurate reporting and measurement. We have integrated three legacy systems: Unity, our core database covering crime and custody; VPFPO for vehicle parking and fixed penalty offences; and the domestic violence database.
The three systems used incompatible software, but the new system extracts data from the source to profile, cleanse and standardise. Individuals using the database can adjust sensitivity on matching fields, such as name or address, to identify the biggest problems and work downwards. This allows the force to pick up obvious alternative spellings and less understandable matches, which would be difficult to spot manually or using the previous system.
Questionable records are then routed to the owner for audit and correction. The system is very powerful at clustering near-matches, helping to correct and update data, saving a huge amount of time and resources. It also produces reports that are extremely valuable to senior managers.
The system has enabled the constabulary to rectify data quality issues such as human error and inaccurate details collected from criminals that the force cannot verify manually on the street. This means crime information is kept up-to-date and meets the standards driven by the Management of Police Information initiative in databases.
As a result, the solution picks up less obvious matches quickly that would have been difficult to find with other software, let alone manually.
A further benefit of having consistently accurate and formatted data is that because criminals do not respect county boundaries, Gloucestershire Constabulary is able to ensure its records are accurate for the other 43 police forces of England and Wales.
This will be crucial once the forthcoming Police National Database system is live next year.
With poor data quality, we wasted time trying to find out things we already knew. Now we have operational efficiency and, in practical terms, this means ensuring a police officer arrives at the right address when trying to apprehend a criminal. This directly translates into enabling us to understand how the community views us and how confident people feel.
Anti-social behaviour and crime
When Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary assessed the 43 police forces this year, it highlighted how Gloucestershire has reduced overall crime in the last year with notable success in violence and robbery with excellent detection rates. This was also validated by the British Crime Survey, showing that Gloucestershire citizens are more confident that police are dealing with anti-social behaviour and crime.
With all public organisations under financial pressure to do more with less, the importance of data quality cannot be underestimated both in terms of better policing but also in helping forces nationwide work together to deliver an efficient and effective police force.
Good information is perhaps the most valuable strategic asset the police have and so ensuring high quality data must become a greater priority.
Reg Barnard is head of the development group at Gloucestershire Constabulary