Capturing Pre-Criminals: Big Data Set to Make Minority Report a Reality

Big data could eventually result in would-be criminals being caught before they commit a crime, according to Kenneth Cukier, data editor of The Economist.

Cukier, who was speaking yesterday as part of the London arm of Big Data Week, said: “We’ll have algorithms that can predict behaviour and mean we could be punished before committing a crime.”

The suggestion is highly reminiscent of the Tom Cruise film Minority Report, which is based on the Philip K Dick story of the same name. In the film, a specialised PreCrime department uses foreknowledge provided by psychics to catch criminals before they break the law.

Big data is already in use in some police forces. Los Angeles police made the headlines in 2012 for using a crime prediction algorithm to indentify likely crime hotspots and arrive before the criminals, which resulted in a 25% drop in thefts.

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Cukier believes that this is just one aspect big data’s future role in our lives.

“We are just at the beginning,” he said. “It is going to invade all aspects of human endeavour and that’s a good thing.”

Big data is already unlocking knowledge about everything from voting patterns to cancer diagnosis, and has the potential to provide remarkable levels of detail about human behaviour.  It could eventually provide a level of knowledge about us that would have previously only been thought possible with psychic abilities.

However, for some big data represents a threat. In particular it raises serious privacy concerns both from a data collection point of view and in terms of behaviour prediction.

Even the crime-catching technology would raise significant moral concerns should it come to fruition, as it would raise the issue of how pre-criminals would be punished given that they have not actually committed a crime.

Cukier likened big data to nuclear technology, in that it has both beneficial and damaging applications.

“I think there are thousands of ways big data could inflict incredible harm on society,” he said, adding that the big data industry needed to “keep going” with the technology despite the likely problems.

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Recent news that Google Flu Trends overestimated the illness’ prevalence by half has led some to question the usefulness of big data.

However Cukier believes that the press’ “decimation” of big data over the news is largely unfounded.

He explained how the data it was compared to is just for visits to health clinics, which means flu suffers who stayed at home would not have been counted.

Given that many people may have avoided a clinic trip due to a lack of health insurance, a lack of transport or simply the desire to stay in bed, this could equate to a huge number of people.

“It’s possible – not totally likely, I’ll admit – that the Google searches were a better indicator of flu than the official data,” said Cukier.


First body image courtesy of Predpol. All others screenshots from Minority Report.


Beyond the Smartphone: How Passive Nodes will Turn Cities into your Personal Hub

Smartphones have quickly become our personal hubs for everything from fitness management to social interactions; however their role as a conduit between us and our wearable sensors could be taken over by the cities we live in.

According to the head of consumer product development at Cambridge Consultants, Ruth Thompson, a growing demand for data about ourselves will in the future be met by large numbers of passive nodes that are built into the urban environment.

Speaking today at the London arm of Big Data Week, Thompson said: “We’re really just at the start of an explosion of use in connected devices to collect data about ourselves.”

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Initially this data, which can cover anything from ambient temperature to medication tracking, will be sent to our smartphones in a manner pretty much the same as the current crop of wearable devices.

However, the predicted growth in wearable technology comes as cities are implementing sensors and other instrumentation that allow for constant, real-time monitoring, and this could result in continuous measurement being a constant presence in urban life.

How exactly these passive nodes will work is a little unclear – while they could be used to collect data for individuals, how people would then access that information remains to be seen.

But as wearables and other sensors grow in popularity, the role of the smartphone for data collection is looking a little shaky. Thompson explained how smartphones are “really not the ideal hub for many different scenarios”, giving showers and swimming as some places where phones are not suited.

Instead she believes that all of this data will be collected passively by sensors built into our environment, presumably making it a breeze to find out anything from how you are sleeping to the calories you burnt on your latest jog.

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Cities are growing at a remarkable rate, with a whopping 180,000 people making the move to metropolitan areas every day, according to Edward Bryan, vice president of smarter cities solutions at IBM, who was also talking at today’s event.

He highlighted to incredible pressure that this was putting on urban infrastructures, and the need for careful management to ensure economic vitality.

“The explosion of data we’re seeing does provide the backbone for cities to become smarter,” explained Bryan.

He highlighted how at present we are in a transition period when it comes to smart cities, with certain areas embracing the technology. Bryan gave the example of the Filipino city of Davao, which uses real-time monitoring to combat crime, coordinate traffic and, in the event of an emergency, map a safe evacuation plan for residents.

This technology is available for cities to adopt, but at present Davao is one of very few places that has taken the plunge.

Other examples are similarly rare; Bryan highlighted use of a water detection system in Florida’s Miami-Dade parks and discussed the use of GPS on Chinese buses to monitor traffic and manage it with programmable traffic lights.