College of policing must help cops to count

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A new initiative to improve police skills takes off in December, amid hopes that it will improve the use of data and evidence by officers as they strive to improve performance and drive down costs.
 
The Home Office has just announced that Alex Marshall, chief constable of Hampshire (pictured left) will head the College of Policing. It will be more of a ‘virtual’ college than a campus-based institution and support the training and capacity efforts of police forces rather than itself provide courses. But the government hopes that it will improve police operations and set standards for specialist skills and training, in fields such as investigation, intelligence gathering and firearms.
 
The government hopes policing will become cleverer, allowing cuts in what it calls bureaucracy as well as ‘driving down crime’. Home Office minister Damian Green said: ‘the college will be the engine of police reform, enhancing professionalism and setting the highest standards of integrity. It will allow us to develop the change in culture crucial to British policing.’
 
Mr Marshall has been chief constable in Hants for four years and is credited with establishing a national police air service, cutting costs on the way. He talked of the college cutting ‘unnecessary policies in policing’, replacing them ‘with practical, common sense approaches based on the evidence of what works.’
 
But assessing what works depends on more police officers being able to read the data and count the numbers.  A test for Mr Marshall and the new college will be how far it picks up the work commenced by the Society of Evidence Based Policing and similar initiatives, pushing officers and police managers to study crime patterns and police deployments closely.
 
Police officers are going to be able to do the numbers and the College of Policing will need to insist on more stats capacity.
 

Policing data is everywhere, insight nowhere

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That uncompromising judgement – delivered to our recent parliamentary seminar by Rory Geoghegan of Policy Exchange – sums up the state of play on policing and statistics. Policing abounds with numbers. Police forces collect masses of data. But making the information sing and rendering the numbers intelligible is a different story.
 
Will the Police and Crime Commissioners shortly to be elected insist the data is made meaningful so that policing is based more securely on ‘insight’? Our audience of MPs, peers and their staff heard and applauded the challenge, but our speakers reserved their judgement.
 
Professor Allan Brimicombe of the University of East London is a specialist in the data of policing. To find out about crime, or at least activity that tends to involve police officers, you need to look, say, at hospitals. A ‘heat map’ of policing activity of the kind he has been compiling glows red around accident & emergency units. What that means is that a local strategy for policing necessarily involves collaboration with clinical commissioners and local authority health and wellbeing board. (Professor Brimicombe’s and Rory Geoghegan’s slides are on our resources pages.)
 
Look at how much data police forces already have, Rory Geoghegan said. But it is not managed. There is little online reporting. The data map is patchy, Professor Brimicombe said. ‘The statistics a PCC will need to devise a plan will not come served up on a plate.
 
‘The PCC needs an analytical capability independent of a police force and service providers. Any analysis function inherited from the police authorities may not be adequate to the task.’
 
Our partner for the event was SAS UK and Ireland, the software company. SAS’s  principal consultant on public security, Pete Snelling said policing data could be analysed. In a collaboration with Sheffield Hallam University and police forces, the company was putting together an automated alert system, which after processing the data on gun crime would flag patterns. ‘Big data’ including statistics derived from social media use were increasingly relevant to policing, for example allowing forces to anticipate a gathering of people that might have the potential for harm or violence.
 

Join the minority, and vote for a commissioner

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Turn out predictions for Thursday police commissioner vote are dim. The press reports that chief constables are anguished,  fearing that a low poll will rebound on public confidence in the police.  Lack of media coverage (which in part reflects the fact there aren’t elections in London) may have compounded the problems facing any election taking place in the dark days of November.
 
But some commentators are hopeful. Campaigning has been lively in some areas, and the public have been given a welcome push into asking what they want from the police. The numbers underpinning police work have been worked over, strengthening those demanding what officers do is more securely based on evidence of effectiveness. The parliamentary session organised recently by RSS getstats showed a keen appetite for a statistics-led approach.
 
Whatever the strength of their mandate, Police and Crime Commissioners will have to deploy data and may, if they challenge chief constables, stimulate a more informed local debate. Our paper What-PCCs-ought-to-know-October argues that we need to move beyond measures of crime – not all of which are reliable at local level – to look more widely at what stimulates public anxiety (such as anti social behaviour and social disorder) as well as at the other things that the police spend their time doing, including regulating traffic and acting as a first responder in a great variety of social circumstances.
 

Wise old trees offer data insight into rise of Genghis Khan

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Historians have always known it. The weather can play a role in the rise and fall of civilisations and empires. Until now, their focus has mainly been on the role of weather in their decline (for example, the effects of drought on Mayan city states) but new data suggests that the weather has a role to play in the rise of political structures too.
 
Dendochronologist (tree-ring researcher), Dr Amy Hessl of West Virgina University and  Professor Neil Pederson of Columbia University’s session at this month’s American Geophysical Union conference, looked at tree ring data which suggests that a very long  period of wet and warm weather from 1208-1231 helped Genghis Khan and his horde to conquer half of Eurasia and build the world’s biggest contiguous land empire.
 
Until recently, it was thought that periods of drought and survival instincts drove Mongol hordes to invade neighbouring territories. However, it seems more likely that good weather,  good grazing and a well fed herd provided the optimum environmental conditions for Genghis to build an empire. This week’s  Economist article ‘A horde of data‘ is clear, “no one thinks that the Great Khan himself had nothing to do with it’. But his strategic genius might have been naught if the climate had provided him only with broken down nags.”
 
In the second half of the 20th century, Mongolia warmed by 2 degrees centigrade. Knowing more about their past climate may help Mongolians understand how to handle climate change today and so the multidisciplinary project on the energetics and ecology of the Mongol Empire continues, with collaborators from history, archaeology, paleoecology and now ecosystem modeling on board. Data analysis is key to their work and the intention is to  analyse earlier data relating to the first millennium AD  to find out more about the impact climate had on earlier Mongolian tribes too.
 

NHS choices on the facts of cancer screening

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We are all being encouraged to make informed decisions and choices about our health. But to do this we need communication around the benefits and risks of different screening and treatment options available to us to be as clear as possible.
 
Whilst recent media coverage  has focused on the ‘harm’ attached to breast cancer screening…NHS Choices has unwrapped the facts.
 
In the main, the media story has been the undoubted anxiety attached to false positive (or ‘false alarm’) results. Also concerns about ‘overdiagnosis’ (when patients receive  cancer treatment even though their cancer was unlikely to affect their life expectancy.)
 
Helping to balance this, NHS Choices  straightforward reporting of the findings of the Independent UK Panel on Breast Cancer Screening chaired by statistician, Professor Sir Nigel Marmot, will have done a lot to build understanding of the benefits v. risks of breast cancer screening.
 
The panel undertook an up-to-date assessment of the quantitative benefits and harms associated with population breast screening. It estimated that for every 10,000 women invited to screening from the age of 50 for 20 years:
 
  • 681 breast cancers will be diagnosed
  • 129 of these diagnoses will be overdiagnosed
  • 43 deaths from breast cancer will be prevented
 
i.e. for every death prevented, there are estimated to be three cases of overdiagnosis. This means that of the around 307,000 women aged 50-52 who are invited to screening in the UK each year, about 3,700 women will be overdiagnosed and about 1,300 deaths from breast cancer will be prevented.
 
We are also advised that after initial screening, approximately 1 in 25 women are called back for further follow up and about 1 in 5 of those will have breast cancer (i.e. to further allay fears, 4 out of 5 do not have breast cancer).
 
It’s very good to see this information communicated so clearly. Also to see these figures as head counts rather than what can sometimes be more abstract notions such as percentages or odds.
 
For more on this research, see “The Lancet” and Cancer Research UK.
 

New database makes history more human

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An article on the BBC News magazine site entitled ‘In Moscow, history is everywhere’ spells out how a newly published database has enhanced our sense of the human aspects of a tragic period in Russian history.
 
The new Memorial Society database marks the addresses of people killed in the purges of Moscow residents in the 1930s-50s including those killed in the purges of 1937 and 1938 when tens of thousands of people were murdered by Stalin’s regime.
 
It is also an account of the role played by one of the leading statisticians  at the time.  Olimpiy Kvitkin was in charge of what is now understood to be the supremely important 1937 census, a census which sought to count everyone in the Soviet Union. This was not a good job to be in when the census showed that rather than the growth which Stalin had announced in 1934,  the population had actually dropped by 6 million in 3 years, because of man-made famines and other aspects of Stalin’s brutal policies.  Kvitkin was accused of being part of “a serpent’s nest of traitors in the apparatus of Soviet statistics” and later shot.
 
Not only does this story demonstrate the power of statistics –  the information in data –  it also lifts history off the page and makes it more meaningful to Muscovites, literally bringing history to their own front doorsteps.
 

More research, more numbers - more evidence-informed policy

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We are all guilty of relying too heavily on personal experience – and not evidence – when it comes to views on how society should work.  We tend to assume our own experience is the measure of how people should behave.  My treatment in hospital may have been excellent…but this is not necessarily how things really are.  We have only to read the most recent Care Quality Commission report to know differently.
 
It’s sometimes the same with policy-makers.  Like the rest of us, they can be persuaded by personal experience and what they see and they may over-rely on anecdotal evidence. How often, to prove the success of their policies, have we heard reference  to ‘witnesses’ – a family I’ve just spent the day with, a factory I toured – rather than research evidence and the testimony of numbers as to what does and what does not work.
 
Certainly, evidence can be counter-intuitive and evidence-informed policy making does not always come naturally to those in positions of political leadership. Research needs to be commissioned, you need to wait for its findings. Outcomes may not support a policy a minister is very keen to set in motion  (no minister wants to be remembered for doing nothing!).  Politicians need to think about where to get their evidence from. From special advisers and experts, from lobbyists or think tanks, the media, members of their constituency or academic research?  What about the influence of  ‘gurus’ or studies undertaken by sole individuals which are very popular and taken up in a big way by the media?
 
Then there’s work to do to get policy makers and researchers to understand each others’ perspectives on research evidence. Policy makers see research as based on common sense, contextual, policy relevant, timely, clearly messaged, jargon free,  short, concise and accessible. Researchers see it as scientific (context free), empirically proven, theoretically driven, needing as long as it takes (i.e. not just timely), with caveats and qualifications where necessary, using language specific to the discipline and detailed, comprehensive and methodological.
 
We need a culture that values knowledge and information, that recognises these differences and builds the capacity of policy makers and researchers. That takes into account the many aspects of policy making and understands its pressures –  political, economic and timescale driven pressures.  Also that takes into account and addresses the influence of the media and its responsibility for accuracy in communicating research to the wider public.
 
Statistics – through quantitative research –  has an important role to play in challenging existing assumptions that x or y policy will have or has made a difference.  Researchers often find it easiest to engage ministers with research as policy is being developed and less keen to continue to engage with it, whereas the real effects of policy usually only emerge years later  - in education, as long as 6+ years later – by which time the support for any real statistical analysis may have waned (especially if the research finds that the policy has  not had the intended effect.)
 
And then, many problems are complex and resistant and we need statistical and qualitative data to address them…policy makers, researchers and research mediators working together through the entire policy development, monitoring and evaluation process: designing research, generating research questions, verifying findings etc. There are some great outfits already doing this, but we still need more…if you are interested in reading more about education policy making, turn to our report on Past Marks, a recent seminar in parliament.
 

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