Narrative vs. Big Data

In the museum world, stories rule. Want people to become engaged in 19th century policing? The civil rights era? Or the multi-level structure of law enforcement in the US? Then tell them a story. It could be about an individual or event, or -something they can relate to or that ignites their imagination. That’s Museum Exhibits 101.
Museum curators and law enforcement officers have always had one thing in common–they are both good storytellers. I’ve often wondered what would happen if there was a national contest between officers and curators in storytelling. My guess is that the officers would easily trounce the curators. Officers are always engaged with people. They are involved in some of the most epic adventures in modern life. They are true masters at turning the vagaries of everyday life into a straight narrative. They hear stories and tell stories. Nuance occasionally gets lost, but, man, it always ends up being a great story.
But policing today is not about the single cop on the street assessing what is playing out in front of him or her. Today, policing is driven more and more by big data. The Museum will host one of its Conversations panel discussions on February 7, 2019, titled Predictive Policing: Forecasting Crime with Big Data. Dr. Andrew Ferguson, the author of The Rise of Big Data Policing, will be one of the panelists. In his book, he sets big data within a narrative and, in doing so, makes big data real and consequential.
What happens when an algorithm determines through an analysis of your friends, family, and the neighborhood you live in that you are statistically likely to commit a violent act or to be a victim of violence? How does a history of racial bias or socioeconomic disparities in a community change the meaning of that data? How can law enforcement use data to “illuminate the darkness of criminal activity” without losing the trust of the community or infringing on our constitutional rights? There are lots of thorny issues swirling around this new tool in law enforcement that seems to be here to stay. It will make for an interesting discussion and a great chance to get any burning questions on predictive policing answered.
In the meantime, I’ll be holding an informal Talk with the Curator titled From Blotters to Big Data: Documenting the Underworld on Thursday, January 10, 2019, looking at the history of data use in policing. Talks with the Curator are our chance to pull some of the items from our extensive collection that did not make it into the first round of exhibits. So join us for some behind-the-scenes action and get a chance to get up close and personal with some rare items like this 1865 blotter from New York City’s 20th precinct.