Game theory can help predict crime before it occurs

About a decade ago, the hit movie Minority Report featured a police force that could predict crimes and swoop in before they happened. That kind of crime fighting may not be far off if a team headed by Eugene Vorobeychik, assistant professor of computer science and computer engineering, has its way.

While the movie cops relied on psychics to determine potential perpetrators, Vorobeychik and his collaborators use data, computing and analysis.

Speer, Pence, VorobeychikThe trans-institutional team of Vorobeychik, Kenneth Pence, associate professor of the practice of engineering management, and Paul Speer, professor of human and organizational development at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, uses game theory and big data to optimize policing.

The researchers use crime data collected by the Metro Nashville Police Department. They also use data from property assessors and even weather information, plus some valuable insider insight: Pence is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and a 31-year veteran of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department.

There are three main classes of methods police use to determine force concentration in order to prevent or quickly respond to crime. The first, arguably most widely in use, uses crime data to determine hot spots of criminal activity, and uses these hot spots to deploy police patrols.

The second approach, termed terrain risk-based modeling, uses terrain layers (such as locations of bars, convenience stores, pawn shops, and the like) that are useful at predicting crime incidence. This approach, again, can be used to predict criminal activity, and police patrols can then be efficiently deployed to anticipate and prevent crime.

“A relatively recent third alternative uses a mathematical crime diffusion model in which locations have differential attractiveness depending on environmental factors and past crime locations to predict crime incidence, as well as anticipate crime response to police presence,” Vorobeychik said.

The ultimate goal is to predict space-time crime incidence for crimes that have yet to occur.

Vorobeychik said the team is building on game theoretic security methods that already have been successfully deployed by the Los Angeles airport for canine patrols, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for scheduling ticket checking patrols for the Metro Rail system and checkpoints, the Federal Air Marshall Service for scheduling air marshals on planes, and the U.S. Coast Guard for scheduling boat patrols in the New York harbor.

“Since pinpointing crimes precisely is unlikely, we will instead produce a probability distribution – a ‘risk map’ – of crime in time and space,” said Vorobeychik, who added that they are “collating and crunching the data” now. The project is primarily financed by an Interdisciplinary Discovery Grant from Vanderbilt University.

This probability distribution will depend on the following factors: past crime incidence (hot spotting), weather, location of businesses that tend to correlated with higher crime risk (bars, strip clubs, bus stops, check cashing outlets, pawn shops, fast food restaurants and liquor stores), as well as location of known gang members and drug arrests (risk terrain modeling), and location of police over time and space.

Using game theory modeling, the researchers can gauge the effectiveness of police patrols and expert opinions of police personnel to assess solutions proposed. Then they will experiment with different techniques in the field, determining the most effective model to be adopted by police.

Brenda Ellis, (615) 343-6314
Twitter @VUEngineering