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So, the government continues on its march towards complete openness and transparency with the aim of maximising public accountability and choice. The latest step on the way has been, of course, the launch of police.uk, which maps individual crimes for all to see. Now, I'm all in favour of transparency and public accountability, and in principle I value information that allows me to make choices about public services, or at least alerts me to the fact that I can make a choice. But I have to wonder whether the impact that this new website could have on communities has been fully considered.

So, the government continues on its march towards complete openness and transparency with the aim of maximising public accountability and choice. The latest step on the way has been, of course, the launch of police.uk, which maps individual crimes for all to see. Now, I'm all in favour of transparency and public accountability, and in principle I value information that allows me to make choices about public services, or at least alerts me to the fact that I can make a choice. But I have to wonder whether the impact that this new website could have on communities has been fully considered.

There are all sorts of things that promote community strength and social interaction, from well designed social spaces to low levels of population churn, and there are many things that inhibit it. One of these negative factors is fear of crime.

I'm not talking about the depressive or inflationary effect the data could have on house prices in some areas – although this has inevitably been raised and widely reported, here for example. No, it's the potentially depressive effect it could have on social capital and strength of community in areas with the (reportedly) 'meanest streets'.

Community strength relies on social interaction: people going out, using local amenities and seeing and talking to each other. There are all sorts of things that promote such interaction, from well designed social spaces to low levels of population churn, and there are many things that inhibit it. One of these negative factors is fear of crime.

Fear of crime in the UK has for years been out of sync with actual crime figures, with perceived levels increasing while real overall levels have been falling. But it's not as irrational as it might at first seem. As my own (alas unpublished) research in this area has shown, fear of crime is driven by influences on a number of levels which come together to produce misguided but fairly unshakable beliefs about what goes on across the UK as a whole and in the local area. These influences include general cynicism about the 'state of the nation', powerful reporting of high-profile incidents in the national and regional media, hearsay and word of mouth, the condition of the local environment (street lights, litter, graffiti, vacant shops etc) and, yes, personal experience.

Feelings on all these levels reinforce themselves, and lead to perceptions that are often out of step with local reality. But that doesn't matter, because it's the perception that discourages people from going out, from lingering to talk to others, from 'risking' starting a conversation with someone they don't know, or from trying something new. And this inhibition leads to increased atomisation, the degrading of community feeling, greater isolation and everything that goes along with that trend.

To paraphrase David Cronenberg, if people were afraid before, they'll be very afraid now.

Crime maps, however accurate or useful in the sense of public accountability, could drive these perceptions in either direction. In some areas, people will find that local crime is not as bad as they had believed. That's good – although the other influences on their perceptions will remain, and they'll have to look at the website to find the encouraging data. But in areas with 'bad' or even 'worse than expected' results, the maps will be yet another influence that reinforces people's fear – and since local media is more likely to report 'bad' results than 'good', these people probably won't even have to look at the website to be affected this way.

In these areas, new and apparently hard evidence of crime taking place nearby seems likely to harden existing beliefs and concerns by making what may have been just a vague feeling that 'the nation is in trouble and my patch is no different', or perhaps a slightly more crystalised and considered view that 'crime must be bad around here because the environment feels intimidating, other people talk about it and anyway look at all the bad things that go on in this country', that much more convincing. To paraphrase David Cronenberg, even if it sounds a little melodramatic, if people were afraid before, they'll be very afraid now. And while that line was a good way to promote a film, the same can't be said for its effect on social capital and the community.

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