Urban Transformation

Here’s how data could make our cities safer

Belgian soldiers scuffle with police officers during a protest against planned pension reforms in central Brussels, Belgium, November 15, 2016. REUTERS/Yves Herman - D1BEUMZGXLAB

Political demonstrations have led to violent disorder and social unrest in cities across the world. Image: REUTERS/Yves Herman

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Across Europe, fast-growing cities and city regions are increasingly confronted with urban violence from extremists seeking to further their political or religious aims, and criminal gangs controlling their territory. While cities have begun to play a greater role in national and international governance, political demonstrations have led to violent disorder and social unrest.

In 2017 the Global Peace Index produced by the Institute for Economics & Peace reported a general decrease in violent crime in the period 2008–2017. However, indices measuring perceptions of violent crime indicated growing citizen concern in the same period.

The perception that cities are becoming more dangerous might not be consistent with reality, but could be driven by media attention to high-profile events. Alternatively, crime statistics might not present an accurate picture of urban violence. There is no clear method for understanding patterns of violence at the level of cities in a comprehensive manner. Responsible officers in city and municipal government may not be able to say with confidence whether citizen perceptions are accurate.

Enhancing competitiveness

European cities are economic powerhouses and important drivers of international flows of people, money and resources. Reduced criminal violence, extremist violence and social violence would enhance competitiveness and promote a higher quality of life for residents.

Better use of information is driving developments in many areas of city life. Cities are moving from reactive to proactive policies by applying data-driven initiatives to reduce traffic congestion, improve the delivery of services, prioritise infrastructure investment and housing construction.

As a proactive step towards unlocking the full economic and social potential of European Cities, the SeCURE Cities initiative would apply the same approach to reducing urban violence. The objective of the SeCURE Cities initiative is to provide the tools that allow city and municipal authorities, as well as other stakeholders, to build a comprehensive picture of violence in their own city.

Comprehensive knowledge would support practical and local efforts, and the SeCURE cities initiative would become a valuable source and platform of a multi-stakeholder collaboration for those affected by violence.

Furthermore, from this base of knowledge, cities would be able to exploit rapidly emerging city networks to find the partners best able to help them solve existing problems and respond rapidly should new problems emerge.

Image: Global Peace Index, 2017

A comprehensive picture of violence

Existing information about urban violence is rarely combined to create a comprehensive and holistic picture in a given city.

Urban violence is most often measured using crime statistics. While crime statistics are obviously a very important metric, they are far from comprehensive. Incidents that are never reported, investigations that never lead to prosecution, prosecutions that do not lead to convictions, are all examples of urban violence that might not be captured.

The classification of urban violence is also a potential barrier to comprehensive understanding. There can be cases where an essentially identical violent incident could be treated as a crime of violence, an aggravated hate crime, or a terrorist attack. The classification of an incident will determine who is tasked with responding to it, what kind of information is collected and stored, and whether that information is shared with partners (both domestically and internationally).

The lack of uniformity makes it more difficult to identify and analyse patterns of violence at European level, and EUROPOL has pointed out the problems created by the lack of common definitions in the most recent European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report.

Aside from crime statistics, what sources of information about urban violence could help a city to build a comprehensive picture?

The law enforcement community is an obvious place to begin. The police, prison service and probation service accumulate a great deal of knowledge about urban violence that remains within the respective services.

Cities increasingly employ private security companies to provide a visible presence in parts of cities where it is not possible to maintain a continuous police presence. Companies make extensive use of private security firms to protect their property and enhance the safety of their staff.

There are a range of community groups – whether charities, religious communities, youth groups or sports clubs – that learn about incidents of urban violence. Sometimes that knowledge is gained through structured programmes, such as initiatives to provide individuals with a history of violence an “off ramp” before they become a focus for the criminal justice system. Sometimes the knowledge is more incidental and unstructured.

Schools, boards of education and social services hold information about individuals and families that are regularly involved in violent incidents or that regularly display violent behaviour.

Health systems accumulate significant data on urban violence. Apart from the information about individuals that present with injuries inflicted through violence, targeted counseling and psychological support services are increasingly accepted as methods to help dysfunctional families manage or overcome their problems.

Questions and complaints to political parties and elected representatives might be a natural recourse for citizens that are concerned about a real or perceived increase in the number or severity of violent incidents. Therefore, at a local level, political parties are also “eyes and ears” with knowledge about urban violence.

Next steps

If we accept that a lot of information about urban violence is not exploited to help improve the lives of citizens, how could we change that situation? As a thought experiment, 10 years from now, how might a next generation of employees in city and municipal government reduce urban violence more effectively?

Imagine employees across the spectrum of public and private bodies listed above, using a tablet-based interface to enter data according to agreed templates in real-time as they carry out their daily tasks. The data, screened to ensure its integrity and protect the privacy of citizens, would be entered automatically into a data management system stored in the cloud. A retrieval system would make the data available across a wide network, and each user would be able to aggregate and disaggregate it according to need.

What types of data might be available across such a system? The types are many and diverse, and the scope is probably only limited by human imagination.

⦁ Cameras owned and controlled by different public and private entities can use facial recognition and vehicle data to facilitate real-time tracking.

⦁ The Internet of Things will multiply the information from sensors embedded in, for example, street lighting or public transport.

⦁ Tools that scan social media to identify online incidents of hate crime or incitement to extremist violence are becoming more sophisticated.

⦁ In societies where almost every citizen is equipped with a smartphone, there will be ever more abundant quantities of online video, image and sound files that capture violent incidents.

⦁ Anonymised data from the education, health and social services could supply suitably anonymised data on individuals and families.

⦁ Anonymised data from police and probation service interviews could supply information on criminal violence.

There is no technological barrier to linking this, and much more, information in a dashboard that would allow it to be interrogated in different ways.

This type of approach is already beginning to be used to map other areas of city life. There has, however, been evidence of a “silo effect”. It is argued that developments in information technology have left behind the daily work of city and municipal government. Current structures find it difficult to develop data-rich applications because “data that are created by one department often go unnoticed by other departments that could use the data for high-impact purposes”.

The best approach to breaking down the silo effect is through political leadership. The factors that inhibit integrated data generation and management are not trivial, but with the necessary political leadership the limits of what is possible within existing legal and administrative boundaries can be explored.

Cross-departmental, or inter-agency cooperation is unlikely to occur at the mid-level of a bureaucracy without leadership. Engaged political leadership would have to mandate multi-stakeholder initiatives focused on a common goal – such as building a comprehensive picture of urban violence in a city or municipality. That mandate would ideally be debated and validated at local elections.

As a next step, a generic design for a data generation and management system based on common definitions and using common templates could be tested in one or more specific cities. A validated design for the pilot city could be the basis for a wider discussion among groups of interested cities and municipalities.

The SeCURE Cities initiative could explore affiliation with relevant pan-European organisations, such as the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe, as well as involve existing networks such as Strong Cities Network, Nordic Safe City Network, European Forum for Urban Security, 100 Resilient Cities Initiative and Global Cities Forum.

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