by William Heiden
Technology is not good. Technology isn’t neutral either. Many people assume that technology is good or at worst neutral; that it is somehow benign. While it is not fair to say that technology is bad, the New York City Police Department (NYPD), with its deployment of geospatial software for crime analysis in the 1990s, provides an example of how technology can become dangerous.
In the seventeenth century, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was concerned with how people could live together without fear or the danger of violence. He believed that there would always be people attempting to assert power inappropriately. His solution was the creation of an all-but-absolute ruling entity—his Leviathan. Under the direction of Police Commissioner William Bratton and aided by spatialized digital data technology, the NYPD of the mid-1990s became Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Leviathan.
Advocates of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) applications insist that the technology allows us “to view, understand, question, interpret, and visualize our world in ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends.” The power of computer software to collect and arrange data in usable forms is certainly astounding. However, because maps are inherently believable, there is a substantial risk that, whether or not the displays tell the whole story, they are accepted as truth. For instance, recording arrests, but not reported crimes, may lead to displays that match police priorities, but ignore community concerns.
Technology has changed policing repeatedly. The patrol car, the radio, and the 911 system are examples from the previous century. Each of these new technologies changed policing, but it wouldn’t be accurate to suggest that each simply improved policing. The patrol car, for instance, allowed police to respond to events from a greater distance, but it also disconnected officers from the residents of the neighborhoods that they patrolled. Newly introduced technologies continue to have a significant influence on how policing is done and can create double-edged swords. Drones, for instance, can reduce risks to officers, but raise significant privacy concerns. Spatialized data gets less attention but has a more foundational impact on individual and community security, influencing even the most basic objectives of policing.
Policing has witnessed several reform movements over the past century and a half. The wave of reform which began in the urban unrest of the 1960s brought about a shift toward “proactive” strategies, or “community policing.” It was from this discussion that the NYPD’s “Broken Windows” approach emerged. Broken Windows was implemented within a new management approach to increase police efficiency and effectiveness. Compstat, as that management system was known, was billed as combining cutting-edge crime analysis and geographic information systems with state-of-the-art management principles.
Because maps are inherently believable, there is a substantial risk that, whether or not the displays tell the whole story, they are accepted as truth.
What’s referred to as Compstat is in reality three different aspects of the policing approach: the software, the management systems, and the policing field tactics. Examining the software, it’s possible to identify the normalization of bias. Advocates suggested that GIS allowed for the more intelligent deployment of officers and the identification of crime patterns leading to more proactive and preventive police work. Critics, on the other hand, held that GIS threatened individual privacy and tended to reinforce the isolation of impoverished neighborhoods. These are not mutually exclusive observations, but quickly lead to questions of values and priority-setting and to questions of power.
There is an assumption that maps simply display data, rather than presenting a crafted message. But every map must exclude information. It is impossible to show every piece of data about any location. Therefore, what a map doesn’t show is often as important and powerful as what it does. The data that maps present, however, have power that is intrinsic. NYPD leaders emphasized the aggressive assessment phase of their work, reveling in how precinct commanders were called out in front of their peers if they didn’t have a firm grasp of the data. They showed no signs of questioning the completeness of that data.
The NYPD’s deployment of GIS failed in four criteria necessary for success. These considerations are vital as policy makers consider the role of technology, particularly spatialized data, in the twenty-first century. These failures help explain how choices about what to include and exclude were unnecessarily biased. To begin, objectives for the technology were not critically examined. The objectives were set from the perspective of the police force, not the city’s residents. The Giuliani administration might argue that it represented voters, but, having campaigned on a “law and order” platform, it isn’t surprising that the mayor gave Commissioner William Bratton and his team the lead. This flawed objective setting hemmed in the rest of the process.
There is an assumption that maps simply display data, rather than presenting a crafted message. But every map must exclude information. It is impossible to show every piece of data about any location. Therefore, what a map doesn’t show is often as important and powerful as what it does.
The first failure led to the second. Data wasn’t objectively verified and tested. When a technology is dropped on top of a social structure that is unequal, it exacerbates the inequalities. There is little evidence that any of the fundamental assumptions were tested by the police department or the city. The failure created an echo chamber. A compelling but thinly researched theory drove the use of assumptions as evidence.
The most striking failure in the NYPD implementation of GIS technology was its lack of community participation. Priorities came from the top of the institutional power structure and dissidents were shouted down or otherwise driven from the conversation. Going hand in hand with participation is transparency. If participation is to be influential and decision-making effective, all participants need quality information. The credibility of Compstat’s technology was eroded by input decisions. This inappropriate execution was well documented by researchers John Eterno and Eli Silverman who, among other things, discovered that inputs into the system were often falsified.
Racial inequality exists in a positive feedback loop, wherein the society’s structure produces a social and cultural response and then the culture reinforces that operational structure and so on, in perpetuity. Geospatial software is part of the structural circumstance and therein part of the positive feedback loop. Errors in the asking are compounded by the collection, so that even if the data is collected with earnest honesty, if the data being look for is wrongly defined, it cannot help being wrongly compiled.
When a technology is dropped on top of a social structure that is unequal, it exacerbates the inequalities.
Though the path is steep, mapping, supported by GIS technology, does offer significant opportunity to counter the locked-in nature of structural racism. Police commanders, community leaders, and the community at large, would produce better outcomes if they recognized that it is not just the technical elements displayed within a map’s margins, but the entire framework that communicates. In a digital environment, what is “outside the margins” is expansive and the silences foundational. With tools like zooming, pop-ups, and hyperlinks, maps today make it possible for underlying data and additional details to be readily available. Each choice about how and where to point consumers changes the story that a map tells.
When a government uses mapping technology to justify its actions, rather than to help inform its decision-making, it participates in what Ian Shapiro defines as domination, “the avoidable and illegitimate exercise of power that compromises people’s basic interests.” The technology introduced by Compstat amplified the domination of certain New York City residents by others.
It is not that technology is neither good nor bad. Technology is both good and bad. Every tool has a purpose. A hammer is just a tool, but if we forget that it can be dangerous someone could get hurt. Twenty-five years later, the NYPD experience and its implications for security in neighborhoods, the nation, and the world, are as relevant as ever. Cartographers, digital designers, community leaders, activists, and consumers of all types can benefit from the rhetorical power of maps in the digital age, if they understand it for what it is.
Bill Heiden has twenty-five years’ experience in strategy and planning. He studies the history of technology and its influence on culture. He is the President of Levo International and leads retreats at Holy Family Retreat Center, in West Hartford, Connecticut. He is currently writing his Masters thesis on the religious reaction to technology in the late nineteenth century for Trinity College’s American Studies program in Hartford, Connecticut.
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