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Last Updated: Monday, 8 March, 2004, 11:31 GMT
Digital maps help track criminals
By Tracey Logan
BBC Go Digital presenter

Where once police tracked criminal activity with coloured pins on a wall map, multi-dimensional computer maps are keeping them one step ahead of offenders.

Firefighters in action
The technology is being used to tackle arson attacks
In the high profile case in the UK of serial rapist Antoni Imiela, sentenced last week to seven life sentences, crime-mapping technology helped police to focus their search on suspects in the southeast of England.

Criminals tend to offend where it is most convenient, according to Spencer Chainey, Director of Geographic Information Science (GIS) at the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science.

But databases of all types of crime, plotted on detailed local maps, have become a powerful new crime-fighting tool.

"You can use some of the tools in computer software to visualise patterns of concentrations of crimes," said Mr Chainey.

"You can develop hotspot maps and target your policing to those areas," he told the BBC World Service programme, Go Digital.

The Dando institute is hosting a conference in London this week to discuss how crime mapping can help law enforcement agencies.

Dubious blazes

Networked crime maps also encourage police and other emergency services to share data, and so gather more reliable information on crime rates.

This is proving effective in tackling the growing problem of arson in the heart of England, which was discussed at last week's crime mapping conference in London.

Traditionally, the crimes West Midlands Police calls "arson" are recorded by the fire service as "malicious, dubious and doubtful ignitions", according to GIS and crime mapping researcher Andy Brumwell.

West Midlands Arson Task Force
The taskforce brings together fire and police services
Firemen putting out dubious blazes in skips or on railway embankments will not necessarily think to call the police and report their suspicions.

This accounts, in part, for Mr Brumwell's finding that West Midlands Police only know about 20% of the criminal fires in their area.

It is hoped that a newly formed joint police and fire service initiative using a crime mapping system, called the West Midlands Arson Task Force, will change things.

They have found that arsonists are predominately male, aged 16 or 17 and act mostly alone within a half mile radius from their homes.

"It starts off as just a bit of mischief," said Sergeant Phil Butler.

"They'll get a kick out of a grass fire and then they'll start bigger fires to get a better kick until they end up doing serious damage, like the fire at Warburton's Bakery in January which caused millions of pounds worth of damage".

Arson hotspots

In response, the West Midlands Arson Task Force is now working with primary schools in areas of high risk from arson, in the hope they can divert children from these crimes at an early age.

An added benefit for both police and fire services has been the information thrown up by their new crime mapping system about patterns of crime.

In one local town, it showed that arson hotspots just a mile apart tended to be torched on different days - Saturdays, between 8 and 10pm and Sundays between 4 and 6pm.

The reasons may be unclear, but the facts are indisputable. In future, local police plan to be somewhere nearby to stop it happening.

You can hear more about crime-mapping technology Go Digital on the BBC World Service

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