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GIS: Cops Favor New Kind of Plotting

Spatial representation provides genuine clues to crime prevention for urban police forces.

At 10:30 one morning in late 2006, two police officers in the city of Toronto parked several blocks away from a nearby school. To passers-by, the police car appeared to have stopped at random; in fact, the pair’s location was carefully planned based on months’ worth of data. When a white van passed less than half an hour later, the officers cautiously followed it before signaling the driver to pull over.

By 11:03 a.m., the driver — a sex offender who had been harassing children in the area for more than a year — was under arrest.

For Manny San Pedro, detective constable and geographic profiling analyst for the Toronto Police, the 33-minute capture is the perfect case to demonstrate how geographic information systems (GIS) are putting officers in a position to solve crime — and just one example of how spatial thinking is changing the way we work today.

Thinking in terms of space is inherent in humanity, but only recently have we developed technology to help us address problems spatially. GIS — which, on a basic level, turns hard data into visual models, such as maps and charts — has drastically increased the practical potential of spatial thinking, allowing “layers” of information to be used simultaneously. A combination of hardware, software and data, GIS allows an analyst to retrieve recorded data from any location, create spatial networks and produce map overlays that highlight different aspects of the area’s analysis.

The systems are particularly suited for use in crime analysis, where they can effectively convert geographic details from numerous reports into maps and, as San Pedro said, help “predict where the next hit will be.”

“If you have a crime analysis unit and you are not using spatial analysis, you are missing a key component,” San Pedro said, noting that while many police forces use GIS on a strategic level — analyzing great amounts of data for a more general approach to crime prevention — Toronto’s successes have come primarily from targeting specific individuals and sending officers to the more precise locations that are generated.

Rather than “plotting dots on a poster map and putting pins on the wall,” Toronto’s 23 divisional crime analysts can now use GIS to target specific people like the sex offender, taking data from reports of a criminal’s whereabouts and creating multilayered maps that highlight potential hotspots.

But fighting crime is not the only way that GIS — or spatial thinking in general — has been successfully applied in recent years. The Center for Spatial Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara is involved in incorporating spatial thinking and analysis into fields of study that range from marine biology to religious studies, and Director Michael Goodchild envisions a future where spatial thinking will be taught in high schools alongside history and algebra.

“There’s been a democratization of GIS over the past couple of years,” Goodchild said. “It’s reached the point where everyone needs to learn it.”

The foundations for that learning are most likely already in place. According to Goodchild, the current generation of computer-savvy techies has been browsing applications like Google maps for years, and as they enter the workforce, the demand for a more spatially oriented approach to problem solving — like the one offered by the year-old UCSB center — will increase.

“It’s a model for other campuses,” Goodchild said. “You see people all of a sudden getting interested, and there are many places where similar things are happening.”

Be it through mapping a crime series or visualizing an archeological dig, spatial thinking is poised to impact a variety of fields. A new book, Artificial Crime Analysis Systems: Using Computer Simulations and Geographic Information Systems by professors Lin Liu and John Eck of the University of Cincinnati, discusses using computer-simulated crime patterns to understand urban crime, and combining Eck’s crime theories with Liu’s expertise in computer modeling, the two have been able to simulate street robberies in order to better understand crime process and distribution.

One simulation that Liu and Eck supervised involved a section of Cincinnati and two types of agents — store robbers and managers. Robbers traveled randomly within the neighborhood, deciding to steal from a store if their skill exceeded its level of protection, while managers increased store protection depending on the frequency of robberies. The end result? The pattern of simulated robberies began to look familiar — in fact, it was startlingly similar to the real pattern of thefts in the actual area of the city.

When it comes to spatial thinking, fruitful connections between unlikely partners are the norm — the two professors are from previously unrelated departments, geography and criminal justice. Yet the book is also an example of the close relationship between research done by academics and real-world application in places like Toronto. Liu mentioned that scholarly interest in GIS and crime mapping has been spurred by their growing use in police agencies around the world, while San Pedro said police forces like his keep close tabs on what academics are doing in order to “try to apply their findings in real-life policing.”

The success of that application is certainly an indicator that the future of spatial thinking is bright. The 33-minute arrest made possible by GIS is certainly a model example, and who knows? One day it may grace the page of a ninth-grader’s spatial thinking textbook.

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