Collaborative research between Cardiff University academics and the police has found that current UK policing approaches to social media analytics are fragmented and struggling to keep up with technological advances and their disruptive social impacts.
The Open Source Communications Analytics Research Centre (OSCAR) led by Cardiff University was funded via the Police Knowledge Fund by the College of Policing and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, to look at how the police service is using social media and ‘big data technologies’.
The work examined how social media and other forms of publicly available ‘big data’ are changing: how police investigate crimes and respond to critical incidents; the ways they develop intelligence; and methods for engaging with communities. Importantly, and unlike previous research in this area, it adopted a holistic and comprehensive approach, investigating these impacts across the full range of policing disciplines including; Counter-terrorism; serious organized crime; public order; and Neighbourhood Policing. A second key innovation of the approach is that it was jointly conducted by academic researchers in direct collaboration with police officers, to develop unique insights into this aspect of policing.
Key findings of the research conducted are:
- Too much attention nationally has focused upon purchasing increasingly sophisticated ‘big data’ technologies and not enough upon developing the skills of analysts and users within police organisations.
- Nationally, the approach is fragmented with different agencies and police forces adopting very different approaches. There does not seem to be a consensus about how much of this work is ‘generalist’ and how much should be ‘specialist’.
- Communications policing is the new community policing, and should be treated as such, to reflect how more and more of social life has a digital component.
- Only a relatively small proportion of police officers and staff have the digital skills and tools needed to exploit the opportunities for digital intelligence and evidence to inform their investigations and enquiries.
- Police organisations should seek to recruit data scientists within their workforce, to enable new ways of working for the information age.
- Nationally, there is an ‘R&D gap’ in terms of police developing the tools and techniques needed to keep up with the rapid advances in social media technologies.
An important element of the OSCAR approach was that the academic research was conducted on live policing operations, in the process triggering a new counter-terrorism investigation. This showcased how adopting innovative ways of working can help improve the delivery of services to the public, but also improve the skills and training of police in new areas of their practice. Work from the programme has been influential internationally, with presentations on its work provided to: the US Department of Homeland Security; NATO; and Europol.
Saving the taxpayer significant money
Reflecting upon the value and benefits of the pioneering OSCAR approach, the National Lead for Open Source and Digital for counter-terrorism policing said: “One of the most important pieces of work was reviewing the ways of working within open source practitioners. This insight has allowed us to improve training programmes and change our thinking about how we hire staff. OSCAR has saved the taxpayer significant money assisting us in these areas.”
Professor Martin Innes who led the OSCAR Centre said: “It is clear that social media and associated technologies are having transformative impacts upon how all public agencies are delivering their services…”