Twitter Can Now Predict Crime, and This Raises Serious Questions

Sunday, April 27, 2014
By Paul Martin

Motherboard.vice.com
April 26, 2014

The system Greber has devised is an amalgam of both old and new techniques. Currently, many police departments target hot spots for criminal activity based on actual occurrences of crime. This approach, called kernel density estimation (KDE), involves pairing a historical crime record with a geographic location and using a probability function to calculate the possibility of future crimes occurring in that area. While KDE is a serviceable approach to anticipating crime, it pales in comparison to the dynamism of Twitter’s real-time data stream, according to Dr. Gerber’s research paper “Predicting Crime Using Twitter and Kernel Density Estimation”.

Dr. Greber’s approach is similar to KDE, but deals in the ethereal realm of data and language, not paperwork. The system involves mapping the Twitter environment; much like how police currently map the physical environment with KDE. The big difference is that Greber is looking at what people are talking about in real time, as well as what they do after the fact, and seeing how well they match up. The algorithms look for certain language that is likely to indicate the imminent occurrence of a crime in the area, Greber says. “We might observe people talking about going out, getting drunk, going to bars, sporting events, and so on—we know that these sort of events correlate with crime, and that’s what the models are picking up on.”

Once this data is collected, the GPS tags in tweets allows Greber and his team to pin them to a virtual map and outline hot spots for potential crime. However, everyone who tweets about hitting the club later isn’t necessarily going to commit a crime. Greber tests the accuracy of his approach by comparing Twitter-based KDE predictions with traditional KDE predictions based on police data alone. The big question is, does it work? For Greber, the answer is a firm “sometimes.” “It helps for some, and it hurts for others,” he says.

The Rest…HERE

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