Court vs Twitter

Why is Twitter seen as such a challenge to the justice system? It’s all about information, and who controls it.

Even in the digital age, the courts still wield enormous power. When a reporter walks into court he or she has to be aware of a series of restrictions.

You can’t give your opinion on a case, you can’t publish information the jury hasn’t heard and you definitely can’t film or record proceedings. If there are children involved, whether as defendants, victims or witnesses, they usually cannot be identified. You definitely can’t name the victims of sexual assault and you shouldn’t really identify blackmail victims. And if a judge has issued a contempt of court order banning reporting of the case, you may have to wait months or even years before you get a chance to publish your story.

Obviously members of the public aren’t aware of these restrictions. In the past this wasn’t a problem – they could tell their friends and family at home or down the pub, but they certainly couldn’t publish their words to the masses. That was left to the limited number of newspapers which could be easily monitored, and punished if necessary.

But with the internet, and especially Twitter (highly visible, highly fashionable), there are now millions of publishers out there. They can dash off a tweet in a few seconds without thinking of the consequences. How can they all be trusted to toe the line? Do you punish all the errant tweeters, or just the tweeters with the most followers? Or do you change Twitter by inserting a ridiculous delay mechanism?

Now that Twitter users have ‘made a mockery of the courts‘ by defying a series of superinjunctions, media commentators are rushing to ask their favourite question: ‘Where will it all end?‘ Will Twitter users wreck trials left, right and centre by spreading 140-character gossip in a global game of Chinese Whispers? Will it threaten the entire justice system?

A lot of people see this as a problem with Twitter. As a court reporter, I reckon it’s the justice system that is the problem and needs to adjust to the fact that it can no longer control information in the age of the internet.

Before Twitter it was Google that judges worried about. What if juries did a search on the defendant’s name and discovered all kinds of prejudicial information? What if they used it to investigate the crime themselves, or carried out their own research? What if they ignore everything we say and come to their own decisions?

Juries aren’t given much credit in court. They’re treated a bit like children asking questions about the facts of life. No, you don’t need to know about that. You just leave the court while the grown-ups discuss what to tell you. Because if you hear something we don’t want you to hear then you’re going to get up to all kinds of mischief. You can have minds of your own, as long as you follow this list of directions.

If you needed proof that this is wrong, here’s the view of a juror who happened to be a journalist. Because jurors are just like me and you, you see?

When I did jury service for the first time at the Old Bailey a few years ago–a case of aggravated burglary (ie, with violence)–I changed my mind about what one can expect of a jury. I had naively expected high standards of professional competence from the court, but thought the jury might struggle to do a good job. It was just the opposite. The prosecutor seemed to have been handed the brief as he entered the court. He was unacquainted with his own case. The defence dealt pointlessly (or suspiciously) with inessentials. The rules of evidence seemed mainly designed to deny the jury important information that, in its ignorance, it might misunderstand. The jury was engaged, gravely aware of its responsibility, and diligent in filtering out its own prejudices and considering only the facts.

What might a new system look like? Over in America you can comment on court cases. You can film in court. You can even get hold of and publish police charging documents. Juries are told to ignore prejudicial or bad information rather than shielded from it. Is this the reason for their higher crime rate? Has the justice system collapsed?

Here in the UK the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which is responsible for many of the restrictions on court reporting, was brought in to prevent the media undermining a fair trial. It’s meant to stop newspapers and their millionaire owners exerting undue influence, not to restrict access to information. As someone* somewhere once said, knowledge is power. No wonder Wikileaks is so popular.

If Twitter users are defying the rules, it doesn’t mean they are all anarchists and idiots out to distress rape victims and wreck trials. It means that they believe they are unreasonably being denied the facts. It means the rules might just be stupid. Let’s be glad it came to a head over a cheating footballer rather than government repression and state murder.

In the old days the public relied on newspapers to be their voice. Times change. The public are finding their own voice.

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* Sir Francis Bacon, in 1597, apparently.

Stenography and Charles Dickens

This week the BBC reported – in its own strange way – that court proceedings will be digitally recorded instead of taken down by dedicated stenographers.

This could be said to bring an end to a tradition going back to the 17th Century. It’s also quite a sad goodbye to a profession that has included an aspiring author known as Charles Dickens.

Dickens later referred to the job in his autobiographical novel David Copperfield, although not in altogether favourable terms:

I bought an approved scheme of the noble art and mystery of stenography (which cost me ten and sixpence); and plunged into a sea of perplexity that brought me, in a few weeks, to the confines of distraction. The changes that were rung upon dots, which in such a position meant such a thing, and in such another position something else, entirely different; the wonderful vagaries that were played by circles; the unaccountable consequences that resulted from marks like flies’ legs; the tremendous effects of a curve in a wrong place; not only troubled my waking hours, but reappeared before me in my sleep.

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Charles Dickens, at his desk in 1858. Photo by George Herbert Watkins. Source: Wikipedia

Dickens, like today’s stenographers, worked freelance – first at the civil courts known as the ‘Doctor’s Commons’ before stepping up to the Houses of Parliament, aged 19, in 1831. His reports were supplied to journals and newspapers including the True Sun and the Morning Chronicle.

Although there is no direct evidence he plied his trade at the Old Bailey, there is a transcript from a murder trial in the Dexter collection of Dickens papers at the British Library. It reports on the case of three men accused of carrying out two killings so they could sell the body to anatomy lecturers.*

Dickens did however write a sketch about his visit to Newgate Prison and based at least one character on a famous murderess [Mademoiselle Hortense in Bleak House].

But the history of ‘court reporting’ at the Old Bailey isn’t a simple one. The first comprehensive ‘Proceedings of the Old Bailey’ (rather than individual reports of famous cases) was published commercially in the late 17th Century. By 1787, as the newspapers began printing their own reports, they were being subsidised by the City of London. By 1834, when the Bailey became the Central Criminal Court, they were pretty-much publicly funded.**

Anyone can now read these reports online, for free. That is until 1913 when they stopped, undercut by the official appointment of shorthand writers by the state following the Criminal Appeal Act of 1907. For records after that date you have to search through files at the National Archives, although no doubt a lot of material has just been chucked out.

In recent years the official task of taking a full note of proceedings has been farmed out to a private company, Merill Legal Solutions. I’m not sure what happens to their records, although I’ve heard they get destroyed after six years. As for getting hold of a copy of a transcript, only law firms and the government can afford the fees.

All of which means that once the government decided not to continue the contract past March 2012, the stenographers effectively lost their jobs. Some may leave the profession altogether.

Their role is now taken over by the clerk of the court, who will have to press the right button at the right moment to ensure the case is being recorded. What will happen to those recordings? Will they be transcribed and published online (like they do in some American courts)?

Somehow, I doubt it. Stenography will now only live on in the shorthand of the motley assortment of hacks who dart from court to court looking for a story. Although some say this is also a dying art.

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*Another report of the trial of Bishop, Williams and May can also be found on the Proceedings of the Old Bailey website.

**The publishing history of the Proceedings of the Old Bailey can be found here

Open Justice

At its best the courtroom provides compelling drama of the kind rarely seen on TV. On any given day you can witness anger, grief, happiness, apathy, despair and disbelief, sometimes from the same person. There are performances of great skill alongside acts of sheer incompetence. Decisions are made which affect lives for many years, if not forever.

Courtrooms can also be boring. So soul-destroyingly, mindnumbingly tedious that you wonder why mankind even exists. Sometimes it seems like you’ve been waiting a whole day for one ten-second event that didn’t quite match up to your expectations anyway. Sometimes nothing happens at all, at a cost so extravagant that you might feel nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ when criminals were caught, tried and executed before teatime.

We all intuitively know the system is dull, especially if we work 9 to 5 office jobs, but like most dull things we prefer not to think about them. We focus on the interesting things, just like journalists. We summarise an event when retelling it as an anecdote (or at least we should do). And so, when we do think about the system we are surprised all over again by how incredibly dull and time-consuming and wasteful it is.

This is what happened when West Midlands Police decided to send five press officers into Birmingham Magistrates Court to tweet the results of every case during a morning session on April 19.

Leaving aside the fact it took five press officers to do it (now you see why newspapers appear to neglect court reporting), the results were hailed as both ‘fascinating’ and ‘a waste of time and funding.’ And the Daily Mail wasn’t impressed either.

Some examples:

A 60 yr old female suspected shoplifter appeared in court for stealing flour and a cucumber. Adjourned until next week.

24 yr old Yardley man fined £200 fine £65 compensation for stealing electric fans and a mirror as the queue was too long!

22 yr old woman from northfield pleads not guilty to assaulting her daughter.adjourned until june for further evidence and trial

39 yr old man who stole £8.99 bottle of wine receives £15 fine to be deducted from his benefits

41 yr old erdington man given total of 20 weeks for 1 count assault on a police officer and 1 count common assault

30 yr old man accused of robbery of a mobile phone.remanded in custody for birmingham crown court

39 yr old bordesley green man fined £1,070 for no tv licence and failure to provide driving licence

A few of these might have warranted a paragraph or three in the local paper. Others are interesting purely because they shed light on something we tend not to think about. You can get fined £1,000 for having no TV licence? You can get taken to court for stealing a cucumber? We sort of knew this already, but still. We leave the bureaucracy to the bureaucrats so we can get on with more interesting things. Right?

What you read in the newspapers is what you see when you go to the cinema – the finished product. The dross, the repetition, the tedium has been weeded out and what is left is the highlights. It’s like watching the football without the delays, the half time intermission and the tedious passing around midfield that never goes anywhere. Like Hollywood films the result can be criticised for lacking in quality, but it’s been created for our entertainment.

Having said that, most local newspapers used to have a ‘Look Who’s In Court’ section. That stopped at one place I worked at because the court started charging money for the paper list, meaning a reporter would have to drop all the other exciting tasks like captioning school pageant photos to get down there. These days it doesn’t make financial sense to report the courts unless it’s a really big story.

Which is why the ‘tweetathon’ was a good idea – as a one-off. It did its job in opening up the Magistrates Courts for a morning. It educated, or at least readjusted, people to the reality of the justice system. But nobody wants a non-stop stream of court results fed directly to their brain, just like they don’t want to hear someone else’s thoughts all day and every day. There has to be a filter somewhere.

That doesn’t mean we should have to rely on a journalist or a posse of press officers. In this digital world, the Magistrates Courts should really publish the results themselves. They are already recorded on a computer system, it’s just we don’t have access to it. Once out there, the ‘internet’ would do the work. Significant results would be flagged up, passed on, commented upon and investigated. All without the cost that mitigates against a human being sitting in court all day waiting for a story that might never happen.

For an example of which, see here. Why Wigan should be the forerunner of this, I have no idea…

Life Means Life

By the end, the fight had gone out of John Sweeney, professional carpenter, amateur artist and suspected serial killer.

When he was found guilty of the murders of two women found dismembered in canals in London and Holland, he showed no reaction at all.

He walked calmly down to the cells and then refused to come back to court to be sentenced. Mr Justice Saunders, sentencing him to die behind bars, spoke to an empty dock.

It was a marked difference to his previous appearance at the Old Bailey ten years earlier in 2001. After being convicted of the attempted murder of his former lover Delia Balmer, he shouted ‘bastards’ at police.

The following year, when he was convicted of keeping two shotguns at his home, he had to be restrained by security guards as he shouted at the jurors: ‘It’s a f—–g kangaroo court. I didn’t expect nothing else. You’re a f—–g disgrace.’

John Sweeney
John Sweeney - the 'Scalphunter'

Sweeney (pictured right) was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum of nine years behind bars.

Had it not been for the determined investigation into the murders of Melissa Halstead in 1990 and Paula Fields in 2001, he might have been launching his first bid for parole this year.

During the double murder trial at the Old Bailey this year he interrupted the start of the case by shouting out ‘It’s all lies’. He also branded the prosecutor a ‘prick’ and called him arrogant and ‘smarmy’ from the witness box.

But as the jury filed back into court on Monday, April 4, he knew the game was up.

Although whole life sentences are relatively rare, they do seem to have been passed with greater frequency in the last ten years.

Between 1983 and 2002, the minimum term served by lifers was set by the Home Secretary. Since then it has been the responsiblity of judges and the High Court.

According to the list of ‘whole lifers’ on Wikipedia (which is incomplete), 30 people have been sentenced to this ultimate punishment since 2004.

Most of these murdered two or more people and had a history of violence, just like Sweeney. But even if he wasn’t given a whole life order, the minimum would have been in excess of 30 years. At the age of 54, he knew he’d never get parole, whatever the sentence.

Some would say he deserves to hang for what he did – but being forced to spend your remaining years in a cell is as close to damnation as you can get. Indeed, one prisoner believed it was such ‘inhuman and degrading punishment’ that it amounted to a violation of his human rights.

Tea and Biscuits with Mr Christie

The cup of tea is said to be quintessentially English. It also seems to have been the preferred tipple of the notorious wartime serial killer John Christie.

So it was fitting that tea (and biscuits) were on offer for a talk by Christie expert Dr Jonathan Oates earlier this month for the Acton History Group in west London.

The subject was Christie’s second victim Muriel Eady, who lived with her aunt in Acton between 1923 and 1939. In 1944 she met her killer while working at the Ultra Radio factory in Park Royal. In Christie’s own words:

She was short and rather plump and I should say she was about 30 years old. We used to meet at the works canteen over a cup of tea and we became good friends. One day when my wife was working away I asked Muriel Eady to come one day to the house and she accepted. At the time she was suffering from catarrah and I told her that I was able to cure her of it. I had planned well in advance to murder her, and I had got ready a small glass jar with a metal lid. I had bored two holes in the lid and through them injected a rubber pipe. I fitted the jar with perfumed water. Muriel Eady did not know that the other end of one of the rubber taps was connected to the gas pipe. I told her that in order to cure her catarrah, she must inhale from the jar. The perfume destroyed the smell of the gas, and therefore as she inhaled she had no suspicions at all that she was about to die. After a while she became dreamy and dozy. This was the moment I had been waiting for. In this semi conscious state I led her from the kitchen into the bedroom. I put her on the bed. This was my first affair with Muriel Eady. She was too dazed to resist. She had no objections at all. Then I strangled her.

Christie then buried Muriel Eady in the garden, although the skull was apparently later dug up by his dog. To make it look like she had been the victim of a German air raid, Christie left it in a bombed out house nearby.

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In the back yard of Ten Rillington Place. Photo from Wikipedia

All of which left me with one crucial question: What was Christie’s dog called? [Google seems unable to bring up the answer].

Sadly it was something I neglected to ask Dr Oates, although he kindly told me more about his biography of Christie, which is planned for released in 2013.

Dr Oates, who has already published six true crime books, has spent hundreds of hours poring over police files, newspapers, army records, court registers, electoral registers and even a 1998 poem called ‘The Ballad of John Reginald Halliday Christie.’ For those interested, it begins

Before that wicked lady
Hindley and her chum Brady,
Before the Yorkshire Ripper and his kind,
There was a strange old fellow
Whose ways were quiet and mellow,
The last man you would think would blow your mind.

One of the problems of revisiting the more famous parts of London’s history is the accumulation of myths, falsehoods and speculation. The Christie story was also made into the film ‘Ten Rillington Place’ starring Richard Attenborough in 1971 and although touted as a ‘true story’ it is by nature a drama rather than a documentary.

Dr Oates, an archivist by profession, intends his book to set out the definitive story. As he explains: ‘History doesn’t repeat itself – ‘historians’ do. It is a product of lazy research and has happened a lot with the Ripper murders.

‘The biography aims to cover Christie, his family and his victims. I think I know more about this than anyone alive, and certainly far more than all previous authors.’

Dr Oates’ previous books, including “Unsolved murders in Victorian and Edwardian London” can be found here via Amazon.

Off the Map: The tragic case of Mahesh Mehta

One of the most common complaints about the justice system is that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Either the sentence is too lenient or the law fails to reflect the seriousness of an offence.

The death of 55 year-old businessman Mahesh Mehta is a case in point. The fruit and vegetable wholesaler was robbed after leaving a bank in Thornton Heath at lunchtime on October 19, 2009, in what the police called a ‘senseless and uncontrolled attack.’

Mahesh Mehta
Mahesh Mehta

Mr Mehta died four weeks later on November 13 after developing a chest infection and detectives launched a murder enquiry to widescale publicity.

The victim’s family – who were later praised by a judge for their dignity – described him as their ‘cornerstone’. His nephew told the Croydon Advertiser: “They have not just robbed one person. It is like someone inside of all of us has died.”

But the case concluded earlier this year with the three men who picked out Mr Mehta as a target pleading guilty only to a charge of conspiracy to rob. They each received sentences of less than six years.

You could be forgiven for thinking ‘Why wasn’t it murder?’

The full explanation will no doubt fully emerge at the inquest later this year, but the answer seems to lie in the medical evidence.

After the attack, Mr Mehta spent a week at the Mayday Hospital before being released. He appeared to have made a full recovery and on October 30 returned for a routine operation on his fractured nose.

It was during this stay that he developed a severe chest infection and deteriorated. A postmortem gave the cause of death as fluid on the lungs following surgery. So although the attack played an indirect part in Mr Mehta’s death, it was not a contributory factor.

As a result the three gang members arrested by police for the robbery were charged only with grievous bodily harm with intent rather than murder.

It is for this reason that the case of Mahesh Mehta is not included on our map.

Teddy Highwood, his family and the IPCC

Where do you go when you believe you have been failed by the police in their handling of a murder enquiry? This is the story of one family’s decision to complain to the Independent Complaints Commission.

Edward Highwood
Teddy Highwood

Seventy-nine year-old Teddy Highwood (right) was bludgeoned to death at his home on July 17, 2009. His killer, 20 year-old Marcin Orlowski, was a Polish immigrant with previous convictions for mugging elderly victims.

Four days before the murder Orlowski had dialled 999 and told the operator through an interpreter: ‘I should be in prison in Poland, I think, and now I have decided I don’t want to run away anymore. I just want to be arrested and be extradited to Poland. I should be in prison for about three years.’

Orlowski was telling the truth – he had fled Poland as he was about to start a prison sentence – but UK police were unaware of this and there was no record on the national database.

After two further calls, the response of a police officer was to say: ‘It is a minor offence, when he goes back to Poland he should hand himself in. We cannot help him get back.’

Orlowski was given the number of the Polish Community Helpline and it was suggested he go to the Polish Embassy, but he ended up sleeping rough in Trafalgar Square with a bottle of cider.

The family of Teddy Highwood say this wasn’t good enough. Not only that, they believe Teddy’s murder could have been prevented if the 999 calls had been taken seriously and Orlowski had been detained by police.

In August 2010 Mr Highwood’s great nephew John Morris took up the case with the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), with the help of his local MP Jackie Doyle-Price.

The process – which ended in the complaint being dismissed earlier this month – has left him feeling let down and disillusioned.

When it was set up by the Home Office in 2004, the IPCC was meant to reassure the public that complaints against the police would be treated seriously.

Instead it has been dogged by allegations of favouritism, given that many of its investigators are former officers, and a catalogue of basic failures. Its current director of investigations, Moir Stewart, was himself criticised for failings in relation to the handling of the shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes. And it has been accused of trying to obstruct journalists investigating the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests.

As it happens, the IPCC decided not to investigate the Teddy Highwood complaint itself and passed it to the Directorate of Professional Standards (DPS) for a ‘Local Investigation.’ The DPS, which also investigates police corruption, is part of the Metropolitan Police.

“The people who investigated this were the police themselves,” says Mr Morris. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that they investigate their own incompetence.”

According to the DPS report, Orlowski ‘appeared incoherent and rambling’ when he dialled 999 on July 13, 2009, and a check by officers revealed no information about him on the Police National Computer.

It continues: ‘Having established that Mr Orlowski was not in danger or posed any risk, he was then advised not to use the emergency 999 system for this purpose again. It should be noted that Mr Orlowski made no reference to Mr Highwood and made no threats to police.’

As to why he was not detained by police, there was ‘insufficient capacity to despatch operation police units to this type of call’.

It also appears that UK police have no power to arrest suspects for offences committed abroad unless there is a European Arrest Warrant.

In conclusion: ‘It is unlikely that Mr Highwood’s death could have been prevented by alternative action being carried out… Mr Orlowski could not have been detained.’

John Morris is quite blunt about his disappointment. “They think it’s good enough – they didn’t take it seriously.

“He’s actually asked for help. They would have took this guy and held him, then rung the Polish authorities. If they had done that then Teddy wouldn’t have been murdered.”

In fairness to the police, they do set out a series of recommendatons (usually known as ‘lessons to be learned’) including risk assessment training for 999 operators and further improvement to the ‘European data system’.

But the public might be surprised that a man wanted in Poland could enter the UK so easily, just because no European Arrest Warrant had been issued by the Polish authorities.

Even the Met admits ‘it is of significant concern to this organisation that EU nationals may be unlawfully at large in the UK.’

John Morris now intends to campaign for tougher border controls, including criminal checks.

He said: “Someone could be a murderer and we know nothing about their background. Letting people in to a country without simple checks is wrong.”

Mr Morris added: “It’s not about money. Teddy was a pillar of the community and he did a lot of charity work. I told the police ‘We feel you made an error and we would like you do make a donation to the charities that Teddy worked for.’ They weren’t happy about that.”

Teen Murders 2007 to 2010

Last month four teenagers were murdered in London. The fact their deaths occurred in the space of ten days only highlighted the tragedy.

Three were stabbed to death (Wing Ho, Kasey Gordon, Daniel Graham) and one ran into the path of a bus after being confronted by a gang (Ezekiel Amosu).

In recent years teen murders have been seen as a barometer of ‘Broken Britain’. An increase indicates a breakdown in society and its values, a decrease… well, let’s gloss over the decrease.

The public and media uproar peaked in June 2008 with the murder of 16 year-old Ben Kinsella, the brother of Eastenders actress (and now anti-knife crime campaigner) Brooke Kinsella.

One of the measures introduced by the Labour Government was an increase in the minimum term for murders carried out using a knife brought to the scene, from 15 to 25 years.

But by the time this came into effect in March 2010 (following a review, then the official announcement in November 2009) the number of teen murders had decreased. In fact it more than halved, from 29 in 2008 to 13 in 2009.

In 2010 it rose to 19, although the total number of murders continued to fall.

The table below can be illustrated by any number of colourful graphs and charts but the reality is that crime appears to come randomly in waves. Trends can only be seen over longer periods.

Four teen murders in a month is not that unusual – it last happened in April 2010 – and there were five in both June 2007 and May 2008.

But imagine that you only gathered statistics between October and December 2008, the peak year for teenage murders. There was only one.

At the risk of stating the obvious, one month does not make a trend.

A similar point was made following reports of four homicides in London in a single day, July 10, 2008. Statistical analysis revealed that this was actually a predictable event, rather than an alarming development.

According to a study by David Spiegelhalter

We can’t predict individual murders, but their pattern is highly predictable. This should mean we can be ready for events that appear to be good (a long gap between murders) or bad (3 or more murders on the same day) – both events are to be expected by chance alone. But by knowing what pattern to be expect, then we should also be able to spot when something really unusual is happening.

He also makes the point that “there is no evidence for homicide rates to depend on the month, but there is a significant ‘Saturday effect’ of around 60% increase in homicide rate compared to all other days of the week combined.”

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For those interested in colour charts, here are two based on the above table.

UK Crime Map

The new police crime map (police.uk) is the third version to hit the internet since January 2009.

Earlier attempts didn’t particularly excite the interest of the public. This time the site buckled under the pressure of 18 million hits an hour.

So what’s different?

Unlike previous incarnations (see the Met’s borough and ward crime map for an example) it attempts to map crime on a street-by-street level.

You can now see exactly how many crimes have been recorded by the police on your doorstep, rather than a total for a much larger area.

But aside from the curiosity effect that many websites experience on launch, the reaction to the site itself has been mixed.

For every person who thinks it’s ‘too much information’ (the reaction of young mums in Windsor, apparently), others find it vague, flawed, useless and even misleading. It’s also been reported that the site cost £300,000 of public money to develop.

While the site has made its data freely available, the data itself has already been sorted and condensed into simple but vague categories.

Homicide is combined with GBH and assault to form ‘violence’, sexual assaults are placed with an unknown number of other offences under the tag ‘Other.’

Crimes are mapped by month rather than given a specific date and time, and all crimes for a street are placed in the middle of that street, concealing the differentiation between pubs, clubs, shops etc and residential buildings. It seems some residential streets in west London have been allotted crimes that took place at Heathrow Airport.

The argument is that crimes should be anonymised to protect the victims being identified – but the Americans have been mapping individual incidents for years (see below). These days they even show the exact addresses of sex offenders.

How the Americans map crime

On the upside, there are developments on the way. Pilot schemes in different areas of the country are looking into daily updates, a case tracking system for victims, information about convicted offenders and mapping trends for offences.

One benefit of releasing full open data is that it can be used to create all kinds of different visualisations without any cost to the taxpayer. The newspapers naturally looked for the most crime-ridden streets of the country, but one of the best early examples was this ‘hotspot’ map of London.

Purely from murdermap’s point of view, the new data won’t help at all with the massive task of tracking down every murder and inputting it into the database. All the police provide are numbers, but numbers tell only half the story.

The London Map Craze

Londoners have always liked maps, perhaps because they use them every day to find their way around this massive city. The most famous map is also a work of art – Harry Beck’s 1931 design for the underground – and almost every household has a battered old A-Z somewhere.

But over the last year there has been an explosion in mapping over the internet and the craze shows no sign of abating. Maps have become entertainment as well as tour guides.

Whereas previously your friends may have used Facebook and Twitter to link to cat videos on Youtube or crazy pictures on Flickr, now they’re also linking to maps that help us to see London in a new light.

What does the BBC use to mark the death of musician Gerry Rafferty? Not just an obituary, but a map of hit songs about locations in London including Rafferty’s own ‘Baker Street’.

Maps have long been used to illustrate more than just geography – take a look at John Snow’s 1854 cholera map, the Temperance Society’s 1886 map of public houses, or even Wenceslaus Hollar’s map of the damage caused by the Great Fire of London in 1666.

But these days maps are easier to create than ever before, even for non-geeks. Want a map to help you avoid the police during the student protests? Or a map of ‘non-Boris‘ bike racks in central London? You got it.

New mapping sites are popping up nearly every day, some of them genuinely impressive even if their actual use is limited. As you’d expect, transport is a common subject. This real-time map of London tube trains was doing the rounds throughout December, as was the London ‘Boris’ bike share map and this neat map/display showing the travel time between every tube station. And if you prefer buses, there’s an animated ‘flowprint’ of London bus journeys.

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The Football Supporter Map of London

What else can you map? Well, there’s communities like London’s football supporters (above) or London’s street gangs. And sure, there are maps showing how badly London was hit by German bombs during WWII, but how about animating the first night of the Blitz?

Books and film? Find the local libraries threatened with closure, pore over an interactive map of more than 400 books set in different areas of London or 100 locations used in films.

Then art, and this staggeringly massive hand drawn map of Greater London and a map of Banksy graffiti locations. But there should also be a London version of these strange ‘graphical anagrams’. Naturally companies are jumping on the map craze to sell artworks – would you like a London typeface map? That’ll be £43. Or how about £99 for a canvas map to put on your wall?

People are also swapping digital copies of startling historical artifacts, such as these plans for railway stations in London 1864, an old tube map from 1908 or even this mystifying map of ‘social and functional analysis‘.

And what about the future? A map works for that too – such as this vision of London-on-Sea in 2100.

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London-on-Sea 2100

Is this just a passing craze? Projects to keep an eye on include this one to add 3D models to London on Google Earth or the strangely relaxing London Sound Survey, which offers the chance to listen to recordings with titles like ‘Under Tower Bridge’ and inside ‘St Bartholomew the Great’ church (mostly quiet, with occasional bleeps from a tourist’s camera). Then there’s always the London 2012 Olympics.

And if you need a weekly fix of all things cartographical, then check out the blogs Google Maps Mania or Map of the Week for a regular fix.