In the media

Data in policing – It's a people thing

Keith Joughin

By Keith Joughin, Nigel Robinson

Police Professional

23 April 2021

This article was first published in Police Professional

When it comes to data, does your investment in people match your investment in technology? Keith Joughin and Nigel Robinson examine the issues.

Try this simple exercise. Ask a colleague: “Who is responsible for data in policing?” It is surprising how many people still believe this is the responsibility of IT or technology teams. Data can often be associated with basic system requirements, so there is a risk it is seen as a burden of form-filling, rather than a crime-fighting tool.

It is true that most police forces in the UK have invested significantly in technology, hardware and analytics capabilities that enable data capture and usage, and policing has far more data and insight available than ever before. Without doubt, this is leading to better operational outcomes and quality of service.

A capability is broader than technology, however, and the ‘people part’ of the data revolution has not had the same level of focus. This is not unique to policing. In a recent global survey, 91 per cent of organisations state that people and process challenges, not technology, are the biggest barriers to becoming data-driven.

This article aims to provoke conversation around some of the people themes of data in policing, specifically around data behaviours and mindsets, and changing the culture around data, as well as thinking about data skills and learning.

This is a discussion instigated in part by the recent engaging debate at the Police ICT Digital Summit – ‘Maximising the digital opportunity’ – around data and thinking beyond technology, as well as our role at PA Consulting working with many of the UK’s police forces and national law enforcement agencies.

Data behaviours and mindsets – driving a data culture

Policing needs to drive new behaviours and mindsets when it comes to data. Data is one of the best tools available to tackle crime.

One senior officer recounted a powerful and moving story, which demonstrated how getting the right data to a frontline officer at the right time can save their life (in this case, by ensuring the officer had the right information about a suspect and their profile and history, to assess the risk and take relevant precautions, before bashing through the door of their flat).

However, without driving new behaviours and mindsets around data, there will continue to be data that is not used – or worse, missed; data that is created in siloes, or data that is entered incorrectly without the implications of a connected investigation being understood.

To tackle this, we believe policing needs to encourage its staff and officers to have more data curiosity, data respect and data pragmatism.

Data curiosity is about getting staff and officers to think about how they can use data, what sources of data are available, how data can be combined to give insights, and what other private and market sources of data could be used to cross-check information. This level of curiosity and problem solving will be innate to many in policing given the nature of the job, but this needs to be tapped into, in order to focus on the many benefits of data.

Data respect is about ensuring everyone understands the implication of data entry and accuracy and the implications to their colleagues and policing outcomes if data is incorrect. A police constable working on a busy response team recording the details of an anti-social behaviour incident may, in fact, be collecting a vital piece of information that later becomes significant in a high-risk missing person incident.

This is also about treating data as securely and ethically as they would a firearm – it is powerful but needs to be secured and protected when not in use. The MOPI (Management of Police Information) code of practice sets out clear expectations and ‘policing purposes’ for when and how information can be recorded. This needs to be viewed as enabling, rather than restricting, the ethical and legal use of data.

Data Pragmatism is about focusing on the data that has an impact, communicating with colleagues, challenging when data does not provide benefit, or when its recording is creating duplication or wasted effort. This is about being pragmatic as to the quality and reliability of data – was the data sourced from a credible system (eg, registration numbers from ANPR), or keyed in at a time when user error is far more likely?

It is important that policing considers the desired behaviours and mindsets it wants to implement and incorporates these into its mission and purpose. However, such shifts in culture do not just happen.

Policing needs to think about proactive campaigns to shift these behaviours and mindsets, through initiatives to educate and inspire employees, defining what good looks like and nudging behaviours, rewarding and celebrating exemplars, and ensuring leadership is brought in to lead the change.

Data skills and learning – making it specific and personal

In addition to the behaviour and mindset cultural shift, there is a need to be very specific around the data skills and knowledge required, and this will differ significantly by area of policing, role, grade and other factors; as well as the learning and performance support available.

Data is a core competency and needs to be an integral and deliberate part of a force’s skills and learning strategy.

This is made even more paramount by the increase in policing numbers expected.

There are different types of providers and consumers of data, and we need to consider different user personas to help understand individual requirements around data skilling and learning. This could be an ‘information consumer’ who uses information in frontline roles, to ‘insight creators’ who produce reports and analysis based on fixed data sets, through to ‘expert data analysts’, specialist roles who will need to perform sophisticated data manipulation and insight tasks. The knowledge, skills and learning each ‘persona’ requires will differ enormously.

In the digital and fast moving climate we are in, where for skills and learning the trend is often to think about self-driven, self-paced and continuous learning, often while ‘on the job’, it is important to not forget that officers and staff still require direction and navigation, in terms of what is expected of them, what good looks like and what resources and support are available to enable them to perform and progress their career. This is very much the case for data.

Policing needs to think about the skills and learning needs across the broad dimension of data, including topics such as types of structured and unstructured data, the methods of joining multiple data sources, open sources and private sector sources of data, storing data, and the ethics of data usage. It is not enough to merely state digital literacy is required.

This needs to be defined through curriculums and learning journeys, mapped to jobs and career pathways, and driven by the provision of informal and formal learning opportunities.

In summary, the focus for building a data-driven policing capability needs to flip from technology investment, to maximising the benefit of this investment and the opportunities provided by data-driven insights.

A core part of this is the people agenda – more initiatives and investment are required to further develop the culture, skills and learning components of data.

Data is no longer the preserve of the system. It is a people thing.

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