BUFFALO, N.Y. -- For decades, police departments have relied on paper pin-maps as a way to visualize where crimes occur.
The maps are supposed to help police spot patterns in crime, but they are a crude method, and some areas on the maps have so many pins in them that it becomes impossible to accurately track patterns of incidents.
Now, a team of University at Buffalo students and researchers have developed a solution: computerized pin-maps for the Buffalo Police Department that eventually could replace paper pin-maps, putting a far more sophisticated crime-analysis tool right into the hands of beat officers.
The information they provide is as current as yesterday's 911 calls, the data from which are used to update the maps on a daily basis.
The system, called BCAM (Buffalo Computer-Assisted Mapping), was developed by students and researchers in the UB Department of Geography and the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis, headquartered at UB, which has one of the nation's largest faculties with expertise in geographic information systems.
A prototype of BCAM recently was delivered to the Buffalo Police Department. According to department officials, BCAM will allow officers to strategically target their crime-fighting efforts.
"Any time you can automate, instead of manually just putting a pin on a map, you gain accuracy," said Lt. Duane Rizzo, public information officer for the Buffalo Police Department. "With this system, we can zoom in on an area, right down to a particular block. It will help us track crime patterns, better allocate manpower and give us the supervisory tools to identify where crime may be occurring or recurring."
He added that the computerized maps are an excellent tool for demonstrating how the department is responding to concerns about crime in the community.
The computerized pin-maps developed by the UB researchers not only show where incidents occur, they also can display other, pertinent information.
"The drawback of paper pin-maps is that they are limited to crime," said Pamela Beal, Ph.D., principal investigator with the Center for Management Development in the UB School of Management, which has acted as facilitator on the project. "Our software system will allow you to overlay other data on maps as well," she explained, "such as locations of businesses and census data that will help the police determine some of the factors behind the crimes. With this tool, they can begin to identify why crimes tend to occur in certain locations."
The system exploits the connection in what is termed the "crime triangle" -- the victim, offender and location, according to Hugh Calkins, Ph.D., UB associate professor of geography and co-principal investigator on the project.
"The program allows you to clearly see how these factors interact," he said. For example, he explained, UB geography students and researchers are conducting a related, pilot project specifically on prostitution in Buffalo's historic Allentown neighborhood. In that project, they are trying to identify the locations attracting increased prostitution and why.
"So far, we've found that prostitution tends to occur near vacant houses, 24-hour stores, lit parking lots and homeless shelters," explained Shane Eisen, a senior in the Department of Geography and a student researcher.
While in some cases those connections are random, often they are not, Calkins explained, adding that once incidents start to occur in an area, they tend to continue and sometimes increase.
The UB researchers developed BCAM by customizing for the Buffalo Police Department a commercially available, crime-mapping software package called ArcView.
"The hurdle to having police departments use this technology is that this is a generic software package and there is a very steep learning curve," said Calkins. "We went to the police department and asked them what they wanted out of it and we came back here and customized it so that they could easily get out of it the information they want."
Calkins pointed out that the Buffalo Police Department receives more than 300,000 calls per year through the 911 dispatch system. BCAM takes the raw data that come in on those calls -- which are categorized according to date, time, location and type of offense -- and maps them.
The prototype software developed at UB is extremely user-friendly; users simply click on items they want to see represented on the maps.
For example, a captain might want to see how many calls about car thefts came in from a particular district on the previous night, between the hours of midnight and 8 a.m.
By selecting those parameters from on-screen menus, the captain is able to view instantly a color-coded map that clearly displays the location of those incidents for that particular night.