West Midlands Police gets £5m to continue predictive analytics trials

Written by Sam Trendall on 18 July 2019 in News
News

Home Office provides more funding to controversial project using data to assess people’s risk of criminality

Credit: Ben Birchall/PA Archive/PA Images

West Midlands Police have received a further £5m of government funding to continue trials of a predictive analytics programme that aims to assess people’s risk of committing gun or knife crime. 

The National Data Analytics Solution (NDAS) project began last year. It uses data and analytics to try and gain predictive insights in three areas related to crime and internal police processes. In August 2018, the Home Office provided £4.5m to fund the project’s launch and first year of operation. The department has now backed the scheme with a further £5m to support another year’s work.

Home secretary Sajid Javid said: “I fully support the police embracing innovative new technology in the fight against crime and to protect the most vulnerable victims. Anything we can do to stay one step ahead of the criminals should be welcomed – providing it is rigorously tested and ethically sound.” 

NDAS’s first area of focus involves analysis of police workforce data to try and ascertain – and be able to anticipate – when officers and other staff are at risk of suffering stress-related illnesses or other long-term conditions. The second area is dedicated to better identifying signs that someone is being trafficked, or forced into sex work, bonder labour, or organised crime.


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The third use case analyses the criminal and custody records and intelligence data of people with previous convictions for gun and knife crime. The aim is to derive from this data key indicators that could be identified in people that the police believe may be on a similar life path.

These people can then be awarded a risk score; the theory behind the NDAS programme is that the police – or, ideally, social services – could then intervene and offer support or guidance to those deemed to be most at risk of committing violent crime. 

This part of the project, in particular, has been the subject of concern and criticism. Privacy and human rights groups have spoken out against it, while West Midlands Police’s own ethics committee – which convened for the first time in April – has also reported that there “a lot of unanswered questions giving rise to the potential for ethical concerns”.

"We are still at an early stage in identifying how best machine-learning technology can be used, but it is really important that our work is scrutinised independently from an ethical point of view, and that technology will never replace professional judgement or affect the police’s accountability for our actions.”
Superintendent Nick Dale

Such questions related to issues including inherent bias, data protection, and the reliability of information, the committee said.

Despite these concerns, the Home Office hopes that, once the testing phase is complete, NDAS could be implemented by other forces around the country.

West Midlands Police Superintendent Nick Dale, who heads up the NDAS project, said: “This technology has the potential to help us understand modern slavery networks – the hidden crime within our communities – so much better, as well as the problems that lead to serious violence that blights communities and affects the lives of victims and perpetrators.”

He added: “We are still at an early stage in identifying how best machine-learning technology can be used, but it is really important that our work is scrutinised independently from an ethical point of view, and that technology will never replace professional judgement or affect the police’s accountability for our actions.”

'A public-health approach to crime'
Earlier this year, Dale’s predecessor Iain Donnelly told PublicTechnology that he understood people’s concerns about the programme and said that the scheme would only be rolled out more widely if it was proved to be safe and effective.  

“Any use of predictive analytics in the UK will never be about looking at the general population, or looking at people going about their daily business,” he said. “This will always be about helping us make sense of increasing volumes of data – that we are already lawfully in possession of – in a way that helps us make better decisions. At the moment, we do things with a combination of our professional judgement and gut instinct. Everybody has a different view, and what works can be quite subjective. Whereas we want to let the data tell the story, and a make a more objective assessment.”

He added: “[A] really important point to make here is that this is not about creating predictive insights which allow the police to start arresting people or even, for that matter, knocking on doors. This is about adopting a public-health approach to crime – and recognising that the police cannot arrest or enforce their way out of this situation [of increasing violent crime].

“Serious violence is increasingly being talked about as a public health issue – it is not something that is inevitable. It could be treated like an illness, and there are multiple factors in terms of the forces that drive serious violence. Some of it will be around policing, some of it will be mental health and [other services].”

 

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Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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