Surrey police today announced a new mobile phone app (apparently only available for iphones so tough if like me you are an android user!) called 'policing in your pocket' http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/media-centre/news/surrey-app
It builds on the police.uk website which has been up and running for a few months providing detailed crime mapping statistics on line allowing citizens to look at the latest available data for their area for a variety of types of offence.
In large part the new app simply makes this data available on mobile devices but the point which really struck me in the press release and in the short explanatory film clip from a very avuncular Surrey policeman was the phrase 'there is also the opportunity ... to vote on local policing priorities'.
Is this really a good idea?
There has been much debate about the merits and shortcomings of the police.uk initiative. There are concerns (almost inevitable in any exercise of this kind) about accuracy, about how those viewing the data will choose to label areas (in worst case scenarios almost back to the highly moralistic judgements inherent in late 19th century mapping of communities in London by Charles Booth) and just how meaningful the data can be when there is no context about the nature of the crimes concerned.
There has also been some excellent debate about the effectiveness of the initiative in terms of the very good question - just what is it intended to achieve? A very good piece on this is on the Open Rights Group blog http://www.openrightsgroup.org/blog/2011/shortcomings-of-online-crime-mapping
If you put together the concerns about the data mapping itself; the unanswered question about what it is intended to achieve and the recent experience of public reaction to the major disorder suffered in many part of our largest cities and conurbations, have we really thought through the implications of encouraging people down the local pub or at dinner parties to use the new app to identify priorities?
Clearly, people are already able and indeed encouraged to attend meetings at which local policing priorities are discussed and the app can be seen as making that sort of process far more accessible. Clearly too, the ultimate decision rests with the officers concerned. But am I alone in feeling nervous that this is likely to result in populist pressure for solutions without the benefit of having heard the debate that would take place at a meeting; without the opportunity to engage the beat team and others in more dialogue about particular problems in specific places rather than a generic response; and with the most likely reactions almost inevitably likely to focus on understandable fears about violent crime and burglary?
To go back to the termnology used in a previous post - better to think about using the app for crowdsourcing on solutions and dialogue rather than using it for purported decision making on priorities?
Or am I just a died in the wool classical republican (and former bureaucrat) with a deep rooted horror of anything that smacks of the arbitrary in decision making?!