Computers drive crime analysis

June 24, 2004, vol. 30, no. 5
By Marianne Meadahl

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Criminologists Patricia and Paul Brantingham are embarking on a new approach to crime pattern analysis that involves creating and analysing virtual scenarios in which physical and environmental factors impact crime.

The research is being driven by recent donations of computer hardware and leading edge software. “This will allow us to run millions of calculations to determine a range of probabilities about when and where crime will happen,” says Patricia, who with husband Paul established the ICURS lab in the early 1990s. Their research involves the analysis of massive amounts of data from calls to the Vancouver police department over more than a decade.

The criminologists will create what they call “agent-based simulation models,” or virtual individuals, and place them into simulated situations to see what factors produce potential crimes and crime patterns.

“Think of it as a criminological Sim City (a popular computer game about activities in simulated cities) structured not as a game, but as a tool for planning, anticipating and running experiments. This starts with very simple simulations and grows into more complex ones,” says Paul Brantingham, “that look at offender mobility, considering home location and travel routes to work, or shopping.

“We might then build simulations by which rules limit movement according to the underlying physical structure of the city, and by activities that organize the city, such as commutes to work, or weekends. All those things have implications for people and what they do and where they're going to do it, including, as it happens, criminal activities.”

Because the researchers have accumulated large quantities of data to use as a baseline, they can determine how closely the patterns they map out look like the real patterns they already know are there. What they learn about contributing factors can have major implications for crime prevention.

“When we get to a complex level, we will have an experimental tool for the police to utilize when they sit down to look at what happens if the bar hours are extended to 24 hours a day, or if they shut at midnight; or what happens if they shut at midnight, but the GVRD shuts down buses and Skytrain at 11 p.m.

“It won't be the perfect truth but it will be close enough to what might happen that we can begin to anticipate problems beforehand and take some steps to build crime prevention into our plans.”

Sun Microsystems of Canada donated a $86,000 computer system to the university's Institute for Canadian Urban Research Studies (ICURS) lab in the school of criminology to advance its computational criminology initiative. Its storage capacity is so huge it has to be housed in academic computing services.

Meanwhile, Environmental Criminology Research Inc., an SFU spin off company, has donated its Rigel geographic profiling software, an advanced system used by professional geographic profilers in violent serial crime investigations. The software is valued at $85,000.

In addition, Tetrad Computer Applications, which has supported the ICURS lab for years, has recently donated the latest version of its powerful Pcensus software, together with demographic data bases and compatible GIS software.

Brantingham says the lab has plans to become involved with other kinds of mathematical models and is working with the school of computing science to explore possibilities.

ICURS is also the key player in the ongoing formation of a network of labs, researchers and government partners, including the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and the ministry of Public Security and Solicitor General.

A collaboration with University College of the Fraser Valley was announced in April, and others are being developed with researchers from Canada, the U.K., Norway, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.

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