The UK Police have published their crime map, showing levels of crime by street and postcode. But will this culture of publicly visible information have the positive impact that we hope it will, or can that happen only if we develop our skills and attitudes?
The ability to see the stark figures of reported crime on your street is going to make a lot of people very nervous, possibly even too scared to go outside. If I lived in a high crime area I could well be one of them. So all I would do would be to ignore the map completely and never look at it again. Not, I suspect, what the Police had in mind.
Of course, this map is just one application of the underlying data. The idea behind linked data is that we can make connections across datasets, comparing one with another. For example, an agency might take the crime data and overlay it with poverty data so that connections between the two begin to emerge.
However, all the overlays in the world are of little use if people don’t know they exist; the crime map has had major media coverage this morning, and I suspect that most people who are now aware of it are probably still not aware that there could be lots of other ways of understanding that data.
Access to information can be a good thing, but not necessarily in and of itself. Of course, this is all part of the Big Society’s agenda of transparency:
“Public access to public data provides the evidence base for public pressure and action, both on the part of those proposing new ways to deliver services and on the part of service users thus enabled to make an informed choice. This is what we mean by ‘transparency’: the ability to see how government actually works – or doesn’t work.
“…there can be no local innovation without local control of resources. Nor can local decision- making succeed without access to the government data on which informed judgement depends”.
But ‘decision-making’ is about more than ‘informed choice’. It’s about understanding the complexities of a situation, it’s about being able to put other interests before our own and it’s about seeking effective and constructive solutions.
And this is where I think we need to realise that making information open and available publicly is just the beginning. Now we need a culture of interrogation; consumers of information need to be inquisitive, to acknowledge that a given representation is only a small part of the story and to engage with information critically and responsibly.
At the moment these skills of critical evaluation of information, and the exploration of the social, ethical and cultural implications of information technology, are in the school curriculum, within citizenship and ICT. However, both of those subjects are under review; it is possible that neither will be in the curriculum by September 2012. So if schools are not expected to develop the skills necessary for meeting the challenges of Big Society, where will that development happen?
To my mind this will be the big challenge; making available information such as crime figures is just the tip of the iceberg.