Lack of standard data systems hinders police FOI efforts

A lot of data held by police forces are also still in paper format

The UK's police forces are struggling to cope with the high levels of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests due to a lack of standard data management systems, the police's FOI expert has revealed.

Chief inspector Mark Wise, from the Association of Chief Police Officer's (ACPO) Freedom of Information Central Referral Unit, said that the UK's 43 police forces received 37,800 FOI requests last year, 45 percent from the media and 55 percent from the general public.

It was the highest figure ever recorded by ACPO, and one that is expected to continue rising, Wise told the Open Government Partnership's (OGP) Summit in London.

Among the challenges of dealing with high number of requests is the fact that the 43 police forces have different data management systems, which means that data can not be easily extracted in a one-size-fits-all way. It may be therefore time-consuming to get the same type of data from all the different systems, which is significant as public authorities are allowed to reject requests for information if the collection of the data is too costly.

Another issue is poor records management.

"We've still got paper records," said Wise. "We need to digitise information. I think we're a few years a way [yet]."

Dealing with the requests has also required a major shift in the police culture, Wise added, saying that there is now a greater awareness of FOI in the force.

Despite the technical hindrances, the police has been trying to use technology to be more transparent, Wise said.

For example, police forces across the country have embraced social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to communicate with citizens about their work.

In addition, the police have tried to use data innovatively, by mapping crimes through www.police.uk.

But these efforts are not without cultural problems.

"People want to see [crime] statistics, but people don't want to report it and be a statistic on that map," said Wise, adding that this reticence can lead to the misleading fact that crime levels have fallen.

"To an extent, the statistics don't actually represent where the crime actually occurred. I don't think we've got it right yet. It's a work in progress," he said.

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