New Weapon Against Crime in the South

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Crime in the South’s fast-growing cities has a negative affect on economic development and social and community harmony. In Africa, with one fifth of the world’s population, for example, data is very poor on crime and its victims. The absence of good data means prevention and detection of crime is poor, and resources to fight it can’t be allocated effectively.

Over 900 million people – almost a sixth of the world’s population – now live in urban slums (UN) – high-tension places that offer a fertile environment for crime to flourish. In developing countries 43 per cent of urban dwellers live in slums – and in the least-developed countries the figure is 78 per cent. Keeping these areas safe is a serious challenge, especially when trust in police and local authorities is low. People are often afraid of how police will react to reporting of crime. Many rightly believe they will be asked for a bribe, or that reporting a crime somehow singles them out as a troublemaker.

Harnessing the power of people organizing together offers one way of fighting back against crime, and combating the paralysis of feeling there is nothing that can be done. An initiative in Brazil is turning to the powerful collaborative potential of Web 2.0 to track crime and help to solve it. And for the first time in history, Brazilians can now see in more or less real time what crime there is and where it is happening in their country.

Wikicrimes, the brainchild of Professor Vasco Furtado of the University of Fortaleza’s Knowledge Engineering Research Group, is inspired by the very popular user-contributed encyclopaedia Wikipedia, and germinated in his mind while on an academic sabbatical at Stanford University in California in 2006.

Victims of crime can simply map and report crimes using the website, which uses brightly coloured drawing pins to indicate where a cluster of crimes has taken place. Site users answer a series of questions on suspects and witnesses. Anyone planning a journey can then easily zoom in on the places where they will go, and see the crime profile of that area – and perhaps be more cautious and aware to avoid becoming victims themselves.

Brazil’s crime problem is huge: Films like City of God – where gangs fight deadly battles in the slums or favelas – shows how vicious it is.

Wikicrimes, whose motto is “Share crime information, Keep safe!”, began development in April 2006, and went ‘live’ with a launch at the end of 2007. Starting with just two employees, it has now grown to a team of 10.

Furtado was frustrated with police hoarding crime statistics in Brazil, and not letting people know where crimes were taking place: he also believes the police, as in many other countries, manipulate statistics for various political purposes. “The traditional mechanism of data-gathering for which police are responsible ends up giving them a monopoly over the handling of information on criminal occurrences,” Furtado said. And that “is not always in keeping with the precept of transparency and public availability of information required by a democratic system.”

Furtado believes transparent crime statistics are vital to a well-functioning democracy.

“We are still facing very big challenges,” he said. “Cultural change is one of them. We don’t have in Brazil the culture of sharing information for benefiting others. People need to realize that when they register a crime they are helping others, and that should be the reason others will act in the same fashion.”

He tried to get the police involved in the project, by contributing data, but with no luck. Brazil’s police argue their monopoly over crime statistics exists for some very serious reasons. “We are very worried about revealing police data which may restrict the work of the police,” Antenor Martins of Rio’s Civil Police Department told the BBC. “Also we don’t want a feeling of insecurity for the people – they don’t deserve that here or anywhere else in the world.”

Many also worry about a crime profile of an area dragging that area down, scaring people away. The police also worry about inaccurate information. “When people walk into a police station, you sign an incident report. If you give information which isn’t true, you have to respond to charges of giving false evidence,” said Martins.

But Furtado believes trust between citizens and the police is so low, it is hurting the fight against crime.

“The police suffer a lack of credibility among the populace which, in turn, contributes toward the low rate of reporting such occurrences: the so-called underreporting effect,” he said. “Research conducted with victims of crime in several Brazilian states has shown that underreporting may, in densely-populated areas, reach up to 50 per cent for certain types of crimes.”

Furtado believes a better picture of crime will lead to better public policies and policing: “The result of this can be disastrous in terms of formulation of public policies and especially in the planning of police actions, in view of the fact that the official criminal mapping may reflect a trend that is quite unlike what is actually occurring in real life.

“WikiCrimes intends to change the traditional logic of handling information on crimes that have already occurred, and considers that such a change is up to the citizens themselves. It is based on the principle that with adequate support, citizens will be capable of deciding how and when historical information on criminal occurrences can be publicized as well as for what purpose.”

Sao-Paulo-based NGO Sou de Paz works to reduce violence in Brazil, and is a big supporter of Wikicrimes. “If we develop Wikicrimes, we can look at things like domestic violence or information on drug trafficking – things that affect communities but that people don’t report either because of shame or fear,” the group’s Denis Mizne told the BBC. “If you can get access to this information or publicise it together with Wikicrimes, it could help in areas that suffer most from violent crime.”

Wisely, Wikicrimes is acting to address police concerns over accurate reporting of crimes.

“Technically the big challenge is to define mechanisms to identify false registering,” Furtado said. “We are creating fields in WikiCrimes for the user to provide further information that brings more reliability to the crime information registered — links to newspapers, for instance. We are also defining algorithms to compute the reputation of the informants.”

And Wikicrimes is not just for Brazil: they want people from around the world to add to the site and help build up the crime profile of all countries.

Furtado said responses from the general public have largely been positive. “The best I could ever hope,” he said. “The project is for the citizen and I feel that they realize this. Every day, I receive messages from people offering support and giving congratulations.”

“I had no idea of similar projects before doing Wikicrimes, but, recently, I have received some messages of similar initiatives even though with a local scope in Brazil, Argentina and USA,” he added.

“In terms of crime it would be nice if this would show that it’s necessary to publish the crime data that we have in law authorities and institutions,” he said. “If this is a success, I am sure that all the crime data will be available for people, because they will realize there is no way that the authorities can keep it all to themselves.”

Furtado keeps a rolling report on progress with Wikicrimes on his blog.

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