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Making big data small: The importance of relevant data collection for crime-fighting

Data literacy – the ability to derive meaningful information from data – should be the goal of every agency

Police agencies need more relevant data and less garbage that analysts and detectives can quickly convert into usable information.

As I sat at my 1970s metal-style desk holding a now cold cup of unsweetened green tea, I leaned back in my chair and mumbled, “Data, data, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” I was surrounded by mountains of paper printouts, two computer monitors running three different data-management programs, and a frosted glass whiteboard covered in diagrams, numbers and the occasional sticky note. I was there, like you, hopelessly attempting to make sense of the data sets provided by antiquated police data systems.

The quote is actually from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s nineteenth-century poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as he reflected on his sad state of affairs of being a cursed captain, dying of thirst, stuck in an ocean of undrinkable water: “Water, water, everywhere, and nor a drop to drink.” But I felt the same, stuck in the middle of an ocean of data surrounded by undrinkable (unusable) information.


For a little over a decade, police agencies have been hyperactively collecting data like kids fighting for candy from a pinata. Agencies focused on the volume of data collected but were less concerned about the relevancy of that data. Unfortunately, for many agencies this once small pool of data has grown into a large ocean of undrinkable data.

Many departments are downloading information from CAD dispatch systems, uploading information from police officer’s vehicle-mounted computers, and sending information wirelessly using e-citation machines, all without understanding why and how the data is collected.

Understanding the “why” behind data collection will help encourage how the data is collected. The goal should never be to collect random data just to add to the pool of previously collected data – random collections of data will lead to an ocean of unusable data like what we have now. The goal should always be to collect data for a specific purpose: crime-fighting.

Once the data is collected with a purpose, it is now the job of the crime analysts and detectives to convert that data into information, then turn that information into insight.


Police agencies need more relevant data and less garbage that analysts and detectives can quickly convert into usable information. My undergrad health professor told me, “Garbage in equals garbage out,” and the same concept applies to data collection. I don’t like the phrase “bad data.” The fact is there is a TON of data out there. Law enforcement needs smart tools to help deliver the right/relevant information. Luckily, correcting irrelevant data collection habits is as easy as 1,2,3:

1. Numbers: Numbers pose an interesting problem for data collectors because they can be easily transposed. The numbers on VINs, license plates, serial numbers and addresses should be verified before recording it into any software.

2. Individuals: Accurate data collection on people can also pose a problem. Many people share the same first and last name so collecting distinguishing characteristics is just as important as names. In Arizona, for example, 43 people share my first and last name; 4 share the same first, middle and last name; and 1 is a released violent felon from another state. Pay close attention to personal identifying information (PPI) including complete legal name, accurate social security number, visible tattoos and tattoo location, and race.

3. Associates and friends: Document friends and associates and I promise your analyst will thank you later! Always ask the passengers of traffic stops and friends of your suspect for their PII, too. Just remember in most states, passengers of traffic stops do not have to talk with you unless you have a violation on that person, but at least you can try.

The more accurate the information, the easier it will be to turn that information into insight.


The next step is turning information into insight. Data sets alone are useless. Data literacy – the ability to derive meaningful information from data – however, is priceless. The quickest way to become data-literate is by using software designed to help interpret that data.

Investigation software can easily and efficiently sort through large data sets, link associates and friends, and paint the bigger picture. Combine data management software with a skilled analyst, investigator, or officer, and you have your recipe for crime-fighting success!

[Want to learn more about investigation software? Click here to download our buying guide.]

Big data needs to be made small to be effective. The best way to start to shrink data is by understanding the why behind the collection, recording accurate information and using analyzing software to turn data into insight so you are not left floating in an ocean of undrinkable data mumbling to yourself, “Data, data everywhere but not a drop to drink!”

Joshua Lee is an active-duty police sergeant for a municipal police department in Arizona. Before being promoted, Joshua served five years as a patrol officer and six years as a detective with the Organized Crime Section investigating civil asset forfeiture, white-collar financial crime, and cryptocurrency crimes.

Joshua is a money laundering investigations expert witness and consultant for banks, financial institutions, and accountants. He is also an artificial intelligence for government applications advisor and researcher.

Joshua holds a BA in Justice Studies, an MA in Legal Studies, and an MA in Professional Writing. He has earned some of law enforcement’s top certifications, including the ACFE’s Certified Fraud Examiners (CFE), ACAMS Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist (CAMS) and the IAFC’s Certified Cyber Crimes Investigator (CCCI).

Joshua is an adjunct professor at a large national university, and a smaller regional college teaching law, criminal justice, government, technology, writing and English courses.