Innovation in sharing data drives efforts to tackle the root causes of violence

Nelson Mandela was wise. He once said, “We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in any society, a life free from violence and fear. In order to ensure this we must address the roots of violence”.

Detective Chief Inspector Lewis Prescott-Mayling
VRU lead for Data & Targeting

Mandela recognised that the root causes of violence need to be addressed at all levels, from the family to the community. From the the micro to the macro. However, what are the roots of violence? How can they be identified? And what would we do if we could identify them?

In response to this challenge, the Thames Valley Violence Reduction Unit has been developing the Thames Valley Together programme, an innovative approach to the way data and information streams are managed to inform our decision-making as we strive to keep our communities safe.

It is able to collate hundreds of live data feeds from across our local partners; in policing, local authority, education, youth offending, health and criminal justice.

It provides a single data platform which then enables us to create tailored, accessible visualisation of data and analytics.

It has the potential to significantly improve our understanding of the complexity at an individual and community population level. It informs our approach and is underpinned by our commitment to shifting efforts toward earlier intervention and prevention, addressing the causation of violence and away from costly enforcement.

These root causes to serious violence are becoming clearer. There is growing evidence that violence is linked to inequity, poverty and adverse experiences, particularly in childhood. There is considerable overlap in terms of poor health, social and crime outcomes. Tackling these root causes not only reduces the number of victims of violence, it can improve health, education, employment, increase tax generation and much, much more. If that wasn’t enough, the greater the risk factors a person is exposed to the greater likelihood of early mortality.

Even if there wasn’t a legal duty on the state to reduce violence and its causes, there is a moral one. If we know what factors are a risk, why are we unable to identify them?

The challenge is that information is spread across many different agencies. For example, the police may be aware of a child being exposed to violence by witnessing a crime at a park, the local authority may be aware of financial challenges in the home, the school is aware that the child’s attendance is falling and the courts are aware of a parent being recently imprisoned. The need to share information may seem obvious. Yet the single most sighted issue from serious case reviews is that information was not shared.

There is another challenge. How can we understand the macro or community level? How many children in our wider community are exposed to risks? What specific risks? Partners needs to understand the drivers of risk and work together to tackle them, yet data sharing remains a challenge.

A data-informed public health approach is needed, where partnership data can be appropriately, safely and securely shared in a timely way to inform a public health approach. It must protect an individual’s privacy but allow us to improve the health of our communities.

This is why our partnership has worked so hard to become the lead Violence Reduction Unit for data and continue our development of the Thames Valley Together programme.

Already it allows us to create our Serious Violence Dashboard and Stop & Search Dashboards, providing new insight at the population level which is directly informing operational policing and partner engagement.  It is being used to create our public health-led Strategic Needs Assessment for the Violence Reduction Unit. There are applications for more corporate services, such as HR.

As we look over coming months, we are working to share our learning with other forces and we are also working on the means by which our partners have appropriate and secure access.

The single platform reduces the practice of less secure or less auditable data sharing practices. It allows data to be utilised at appropriate levels from the individual to the community, whilst safeguarding the data, ensuring its integrity and prevents oversharing. It ensures there is no “misuse” of data, whilst ensuring there is no “missed use” of data.  

Crucially, Thames Valley Together will become an important mechanism to assist all local partners as they assume the data sharing responsibilities as described in the Serious Violence Duty, which we anticipate in the summer 2022 following the passage of the Policing, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill.   

As we look to the future, there is potential for the system to move beyond the useful yet more simplistic descriptive data analysis, the presentation of overlaid risk factors and visualisation. There is real potential in the use of data-led machine-learning, helping to create models that can inform – but not automatically make – our professional decisions and actions.

We have developed strong governance to the programme, but this is not just a legal duty on the partnership. There is a critical ethical one. The VRU is establishing a Data Ethics Board and an ethical framework.

Even if legal and ethical, how we use these tools is crucial, particularly as they become more sophisticated. We must be careful not to stigmatise and careful not to generalise from the group level to the individual. After all, risk factors are just that, they are not deterministic.

We will develop ways of allowing data to be used to inform placed-based decisions on what action to take. This will involve the communities at those places. Appropriate data will be made available to the community themselves, involving them in problem-solving and addressing the causes of violence in each place.

The Thames Valley Together programme will allow decisions to be taken at the macro and micro level. This is what a partnership working should be. In getting this right, we can help build legitimacy in public services, particularly in communities and individuals exposed to trauma, inequity and violence. It can allow us to focus supportive resources where and when it is needed most. It can allow us to tackle the root causes of violence.

Detective Chief Inspector Lewis Prescott-Mayling leads the Thames Valley Violence Reduction Unit’s Data & Targeting workstream.  He has served with Thames Valley Police for 20 years and is currently undertaking a PhD at University College London Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science.