Social media’s ‘big data’ could help police understand hate crime

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Researchers at the University of Sussex have joined forces with the Metropolitan Police (MPS), Demos, CASM Consulting and Palantir Technologies to investigate whether there is a direct connection between activity on social media platforms and offline hate crime incidents.

The ‘Policing Hate Crime’ project, which begins later this month, will explore whether software that can integrate and analyse disparate data sets should be deployed as a vital tool in the policing of hate crime. 

Hate crimes are crimes committed against someone because of their disability, gender-identity, race, religion or belief, or sexual orientation. Hate crimes can involve threatening behaviour, assault, robbery, harassment or damage to property.

Academics from the University will be working in a consortium with London’s police force, the Demos think tank, and software companies CASM Consulting and Palantir on the project, which has been awarded a £557,100 grant from the Police Knowledge Fund

David Weir, Professor of Computer Science at the University, said: “There is a vast amount of data on social media sites and in police crime databases. Much of this data comes in the form of natural language, and without the help of text analysis technology it’s difficult to translate this into useful insights.

“With the police pushed for time, we need to look to technology to help unlock this data.”

The consortium will conduct the analysis using Palantir’s data integration and analytics platform along with software developed by CASM Consulting that arose out of pioneering work at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM), a collaboration between the University of Sussex and the Demos think tank. 

The combination of these technologies will allow analysts to ingest vast quantities of text and look for patterns and meaningful insights. 

The software will not be used to identify and respond to individual tweets, but will instead aim to provide an overall picture of activity in a certain location, which could help police to identify both time periods and areas where hate crimes are more likely to occur. 

An ethics oversight panel has been convened in order to ensure that the research is carried out without infringing on social media users’ right to online privacy.

Alongside the work on social media, another strand of the pilot will use the Method52 software to analyse police records and identify how the reporting and recording of hate crime has changed over time; this will then feed into best practice on police responses to hate crime incidents. 

As levels of reported crime across the UK fall, the number of recorded hate crime incidents continues to rise. The MPS’s rolling 12 months figures up to August 2015 show Islamophobic offences have risen by 63.9 per cent in London compared with the previous rolling 12 months.

Dr Mark Walters, Reader in Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, said: “Hate crime is extremely damaging to individuals, and to communities, and to the cohesiveness of our multicultural society.

“This study is going to be using new technology along with academic expertise to help police in better understanding and better policing hate crime.”

In the video below, Dr Walters gives more information about hate crime's impacts on people and on communities.

Chief officer lead, Commander Simon Letchford of the MPS, said: “The MPS has long since recognised the impact of hate crime on communities and the hidden nature of this crime.

“We are committed to tackling hate crime in all its forms, and this project provides us with an exciting opportunity to be at the cutting edge of emerging technology, working with leading universities and experts in the field, to explore if analysis of social media platforms can help us to identify issues quickly, prevent crime and boost our response to victims and communities.”

The Police Knowledge Fund, launched earlier this year by the College of Policing, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Home Office, aims to increase evidence-based knowledge, skills and problem solving approaches within policing.

Posted on behalf of: University of Sussex
Last updated: Friday, 9 October 2015