Big data problems for Criminal Justice

I am on the job market this year, and I have noticed a few academic jobs focused on big data (see this Penn State posting for one example). Because example data sets in criminal justice are not typical fodder for big data conversations, I figured I would talk abit about my experiences and illustrate the need for the types of skills needed to manipulate and analyze these big datasets.

As opposed to trying to further define the big data buzzword, I will simply talk about the actual size of data I have dealt with. Depending on the definition used, most large criminal justice datasets may be called medium sized data. That is you can load it in a database or statistical program (particularly those that do not load everything into RAM, like SPSS and SAS) and calculate different summary statistics and fit simple models. Were not talking about datasets that need custom big data solutions like Hadoop. The biggest single table I’ve personally worked with is a set of 25 million arrest histories (with around 150 variables). Using SPSS server to sort this dataset took less than a minute, using my local machine it took about 10 minutes. Nothing much to complain about there, and it is where the statistical programs that don’t load everything into memory shine.

To talk specifics, the police agency where I was an analyst at (Troy, NY) is a fairly small city with a population of around 50,000 people. They generated around 60,000 calls for service per year (this includes anytime someone calls 911, or police initiated interactions like a traffic stop). Every single one of these incidents generates a one to many relationship for multiple tables, and here is a sampling of those relationships; multiple free text description of the event and follow up investigations, people involved in the incident, offences committed, property stolen or damaged, persons arrested, property recovered or confiscated, drug and weapon contraband, vehicles involved, etc. Over the time period of 04-13 the incident narratives themselves are around 1 gigabyte, and the number of unique individuals and institutions in the "names" table was around 100,000. None of these tables alone would be considered big data, but when taking multiple years and having to conduct multiple table merges it turns into complicated medium size data pretty quickly.

I’m sure I’m not alone here working with police departments. In the past month I’ve had conversations with two individuals about corrections datasets that result in millions of records. Criminal justice organizations have been collecting data for along time, and given say 50,000 records per year it only takes 10 years to turn that into 500,000. When considering larger agencies (like statewide corrections or courts) the per year becomes even larger.

Most of the time summary statistics and fairly simple regression models are all researchers and analysts are interested in in criminal justice. The field is not heavily devoted to prediction, and certainly not to fitting complicated machine learning models. Many regression tasks can be estimated with data as large as 25 million records (given that the number of predictor variables tends to be small) and even if it didn’t sampling (or reducing the data to unique observations and weighting) is an obvious option. So for these types of simple needs just learning effective practices at manipulating datasets — such as SQL and best practices for conducting data manipulations in statistical packages is most of the education one needs. But these are still definitely needs that are not met in any social science curricula that I am aware. By fire is my only experience.

Two particular areas that turn little data into big data are spatial and network analysis, as one not only needs to consider the number of nodes but also the number of edges (or potential edges) in the system to calculate various measures. For example, in my dissertation I needed to conduct spatial lags of several variables (and this is needed in calculating measures such as Moran’s I). In matrix notation this typically involves calculating Wx, where W is an n by n spatial weights matrix. In my dissertation, n was 21,506, so not a large dataset, but W is then a 21,506^2 matrix. It can be held in memory, but good luck trying to calculate anything with it. Most of the spatial econometrics literature discusses how calculating W^-1 is problematic, let alone the simpler operation of Wx. So to do those calculations I needed to create custom code. I hope to be able to write a blog post on how it can be done at some point – but these blog posts aren’t earning me any brownie points to getting a job (let alone getting tenure in the future).

The other area that I believe needs to be developed in the social science related to medium data problems are custom visualization solutions. Data in social science typically has lots of noise to signal, and adding in 100,000 observations rarely makes things clearer. This is why I think visualization within the social sciences has potential to expand, as the majority of historical discussions are not extensible to our particular use applications in the social sciences.

So I’m excited by academia recognizing that big data is a problem and takes custom solutions in the social sciences. An environment where I can be reworded for taking on those big data tasks and partly focus on publishing software, as opposed to solely publish or perish, would help develop the field and have a more lasting impact on practical applications than journal articles. At least a place that acknowledges the need to develop curricula related to these data management tasks would be a good start. But I’m not sure I like the types of applications currently being pitched in the social sciences as big data problems, particularly the trivial applications of examining social networks like facebook or twitter, nor emphasis on big data tools like Hadoop that I don’t think are applicable to the social scientists toolset. But I’m certainly biased to think that applications in criminal justice have more practical implications than alot of contemporary social science research.

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