Big Data. Big Challenge?

Big Data. It is a term that is as shrouded in uncertainty as the term “Cloud.” Yet, it is a term that demands your attention and understanding. Why? Because it is real, it is not going anywhere, and harnessing it may well be the challenge facing Twenty-first Century law enforcement. If you can understand Big Data and the technology used to efficiently utilize it, you will be better equipped to meet the data-driven demands of the new “social-media citizen". How your agency meets that challenge is fundamental to both short- and long-term success.

Big Data refers to the phenomenon created by the proliferation of software systems (legacy and active), websites, mobile devices, and all the other ways that agencies and people enter data on ‘stuff’: demographic data, public safety data (incidents, citations, SARS, etc.), financial and credit information, locations, etc. As information gets added to these systems, the data gets bigger and bigger. This unchecked growth can lead to issues of data overload (where the sheer volume of data makes it useless due to so much white noise) and lack of careful governance over where, by whom and why this data is used. Clearly, the challenge of Big Data isn’t creating the data; rather, it is harnessing the data across these systems and channeling it toward a responsible and actionable purpose.

For our purposes, we will focus on one area of Big Data that is more manageable and within law enforcement’s direct area of interest: the data created daily by the various database systems within your own community and the communities surrounding you.

Depending upon your jurisdiction’s size, Big Data affects you differently. For a ten-man police department, one challenge is being able to quickly and responsibly share law enforcement information across jurisdictions. As the size of the agency grows (from local PDs to county justice, up to State Law Enforcement Information-Sharing Environments (ISEs)), so does the size and diversity of the data challenge. The larger the agency, the more likely it is that you have disparate data systems within your own agency. Further, your Big Data interests may include other government agencies in your community—water/power, healthcare, benefit programs, corrections, etc. All of these isolated systems have vital data that contributes to the Big Data picture for your community. And your citizens, now disciples of the Big Data world, expect that you are fluent (and able to communicate effectively with them) in their digital language. The Twenty-first Century social-media minded citizen demands more efficiency, transparency, and speed/accuracy of law enforcement action, all because of their belief in law enforcement’s responsible access to more and more data.

Therein lies the rub—your citizens assume that you have access to this Big Data while, in reality, most officers can’t see beyond their own RMS system and NCIC. When the average citizen is stopped for speeding and the officer takes the citizen’s information back to the cruiser, the citizen assumes the officer has access to ‘everything’ about her and her vehicle (from a law enforcement context). What she don’t realize is that while crime may have no borders, the borders of the information available in real-time to an officer on the street generally stops at his own RMS and NCIC. In most cases, the officer wouldn’t know if the vehicle or person had contact with neighboring police five minutes ago. So, this challenge is two-fold. One: Big Data is out there and law enforcement should have access to it in as real-time a manner as possible, regardless of system or jurisdiction; and Two: if citizens expect that we have this real-time access to the data needed to protect them, the fact that we don’t can create serious community relations issues during high profile events.

To stay ahead of the data-driven curve, pro-active, forward-looking agencies at all tiers (local, county, state) have created initiatives targeted at ensuring that Big Data, true real-time information-sharing, and better cross-domain (and cross-system) awareness are at the forefront of their agendas. Here are some examples of how agencies are harnessing Big Data:

Single agency data awareness (without costly data conversions): While many local law enforcement agencies have embraced new data management systems in recent years (RMS, CMS, JMS, etc.), a number still rely on information stored in legacy systems. Rather than spend budget dollars on costly data conversions, agencies are now looking to innovative technology that allows them to make use of these disparate data resources without ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water.’ Such technology allows agencies to create real-time data links between all of their data systems, without fork-lifting out legacy systems and one-time data conversions. So an agency can do more with less by bringing together all its internal data resources quickly.

TRUE real-time inter-agency tactical information sharing and awareness: If a vehicle stop results in a safety alert being added to a person’s record in an agency’s RMS database within a sharing consortium (e.g. Known Resistor, Weapons Violator), that information should be available immediately...not just to the primary agency, but to all connected agencies. The next officer from a neighboring town who has contact with that vehicle/person, even just a few minutes later, needs to know this VITAL information. With the explosion of Big Data, information on people, vehicles, things, and events changes multiple times a second, well beyond the confines of your agency’s RMS. Without real-time access (with appropriate governance) to cross-reference, this lack of data timeliness can lead to unnecessary danger. Regional sharing consortiums are springing up at the grass roots level. They are achieving this goal and pushing the envelope by adding data streams to empower law enforcement agents ‘at the tip of the spear’ with the information they need to augment their instincts and make more accurate snap decisions that save lives.

County law enforcement and integrated justice real-time data exchange: Many successful county-wide initiatives are achieving the goal of a true, real-time information sharing and exchange network across all justice agencies within their county. From linking all the different RMS databases within the county together, to including county jail data, paperless reporting among all PDs and county detectives/attorneys, these counties are truly channeling their ‘Big Data’ resources. Many are now looking beyond law enforcement to other county data resources to further expand the total awareness that citizens now expect.

State-wide law enforcement data exchange: Fresh, data-driven statewide sharing initiatives are having a great deal of success leveraging technology from innovative software firms to make data available, according to prevailing standards and privacy concerns, from all law enforcement agencies across the state, to law enforcement agents within seconds of entry at the local source level (most often RMS/JMS databases). The most successful of these initiatives are looking beyond law enforcement for further Big Data possibilities, including sharing law enforcement and corrections data (appropriately, within legal boundaries) with social services programs such as: using corrections data to determine real-time, on-going eligibility for unemployment and social services benefits, and more.

Fusion and real-time crime centers: Several real-time crime centers and state fusion centers are exploring and/or deploying technology that allows watch desk and analyst personnel to drastically increase efficiency and cut the time required to respond to information requests by being able to see, with one search, all information related to a person, vehicle, etc., instead of searching each system separately.

What are the key steps to turn the challenge of Big Data into a big success for your community? 1.) Recognize the need to become data-driven, get informed about Big Data, and think more collaboratively about what data resources are available; and 2.) Don’t go it alone. The technology is ready. Seek out a responsible and innovative software firm that features advanced data aggregation, exchange and sharing solutions. You can choose to embrace Big Data or bury your agency’s head in the sand.

No matter what, Big Data will find you. Will you be ready?


David N. Heffner, CODY Systems, has managed and advised several large scale data aggregation/exchange projects for single agencies on up to multi-source, state-level systems, including working as project manager for the Missouri State-wide Data Exchange (MoDEx). He offers his thought leadership, both technology and governance, on several industry committees and boards, including the CJIS Programs Advisory Committee for the Integrated Justice Information System (IJIS) Institute.