Baseline: Using social media in the design of local public security policies

Designing local public policies is not an easy task. In theory, it involves establishing a diagnosis on the basis of which objectives and actions can be set and implemented, prior to evaluating the results. In terms of public security policy, this should include measures of the different levels of security, both objective and subjective, in society. In addition to the traditional tools and instruments that public administrations already had to carry out diagnoses, social media has emerged in recent years as new source of information.

When measuring objective security, the most used form of data is the number of crimes reported to the police. However, such data has limitations that should be taken into account when analysing and comparing. The main one is that not all offences are reported to the police (these “missing crimes” are known as the dark figure or crime – or rather dark figures, because the percentage of non-reported crimes can vary greatly depending on the nature of the offence). Moreover, two issues must be taken into account when interpreting police statistics: data entry errors, and errors due to incorrect information provided by the person reporting them (whether due to carelessness or misinformation). It is important to be aware of those gaps in the information, as they can lead to incorrect diagnoses and, consequently, to incorrect policies.

Mossos d’Esquadra – Catalonia’s regional police – have implemented some social media initiatives which have contributed to complementing or improving the collection of data currently used to measure objective security. Some of these were presented at the “Everyday Security” workshop in Barcelona. Interactions with the police through social media can also prove useful to obtain indicators to measure the efficiency of some policies.

The apps made available to the public by some law enforcement agencies are new communication channels which, apart from building trust in the institutions, can result in an increased number of complaints to the police that then constitute an important source of information. An example is the M7-Citizen Security System. This is a two-way communication system between citizens, the municipal administration and local police forces that has been implemented in 14 municipalities in the Barcelona Metropolitan Area. Among its many functionalities this tool facilitates coordination between different local polices forces, the national police forces, municipal administrations and private security actors, as well to exchange in real time with citizens, who can report incidents or make emergency calls. Through this application citizens are involved in the co-production of security.

On top of using social media to gather information for work related to intelligence or criminal investigations, it is reasonable to envisage social networks as a tool to find information about crimes that have happened but had not been reported. This option is still limited because the information published on social media is usually incomplete and hard to verify (notably because of the limit in the number of characters or the small number of posts that are geo-tagged on Twitter). However, it could also be considered as a source of information.

Related to the subject of security, victimisation surveys help to gather information on the population’s subjective feeling of security. However, such tools have their shortcomings such as the cost of conducting a survey with a representative sample across the region or the difficulty in comparing results with existing police statistics. Social media can complement the victimisation surveys and help measure this subjective security by, on the one hand, facilitating the implementation of these surveys (a larger number of people reached and a better cost-benefit ratio) whilst, on the other hand, assisting the analysis of perceptions, either through constant social media monitoring or specific disruptive events such as demonstrations or riots. This can also be used to measure whether messages issued by police have an effect on the feeling of security of the recipients.

We don’t know how long social media will remain relevant, but the fact that it is widely used by citizens should lead policy makers and institutions to take it into account when implementing their policies at the local level, including those related to security. In this sense, projects such as MEDI@4SEC are vitally important to analyse their influence and usefulness in the development of public actions related to security.

Santiago Herrero

Department of Interior, Government of Catalonia


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