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Smartphone theft: the story behind the data


In this post I want to look at how data can get recycled once it is published. Specifically, I want to look at how a piece of data that I had gathered through a Freedom of Information request made it’s way into a national newspaper and broadcaster.

Way back in November, I was working on stories about Barnsbury ward in Islington as part of my patch portfolio work for my MA at City University. The brief was to really get to know a small area of London, and use it as a place to make contacts and gather stories from your set patch.

As part of this project I arranged a meeting with my local Community Support Officer, who as someone who regularly patrolled the area, was able to give me a unique insight into the character of the ward.

One of the things that stood out in the meeting was that the ward, despite having a police station bang in the middle of it, was subject to a very high level of mobile phone theft, a pattern that I was assured was repeated across the borough.

With this information, I decided to submit a Freedom of Information request and received an acknowledgement of my request on November 15:

Dear Miss York

Freedom of Information Request Reference No: 2011110002133
I write in connection with your request for information which was received by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) on 14/11/2011.  I note you seek access to the following information:

” -Number of mobile phone thefts in Islington borough by year from 2005. any additional breakdown of the information, eg by month or the location of the incidents would also be helpful, although please do not include this if it will go over the limit. “

Your request will now be considered in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the Act).  You will receive a response within the statutory timescale of 20 working days as defined by the Act, subject to the information not being exempt or containing a reference to a third party.


My instinct was that there was a story here, and sure enough within a few weeks I had heard back from the police, who sent me the relevant figures. Although I received all the figures between 2005 and 2011, I have put the 2010-2011 figures below:



I have today decided to disclose the located information to you in full.  Please find attached information pursuant to your request above.


ROBBERY – 370         SNATCH – 157         PICKPOCKET – 752         OTHER THEFT – 1527


ROBBERY – 486         SNATCH – 786         PICKPOCKET – 689         OTHER THEFT – 1617

The number that really jumped out at me was the increase in snatches between 2010 and 2011. In order to understand this it was back to the police station, this time for an interview with a detective. He explained that the increase in snatches was down to a new technique, where gangs riding on bicycles coasted down streets looking for a blissfully unaware smartphone user holding his mobile out in front of his face, following gps instructions, checking their email or just simply taking a photo. All the criminals needed to do was reach out, snatch the mobile phone from their hand, and ride off at speed, making it virtually impossible for the victim to catch up, even if they did react quickly to the situation (although more often than not they stand looking confused for several seconds until the reality of the theft sinks in.)

The percentage change from 157 to 786 was 400.637%. So now I had my story, and published it online with the strapline ‘400% rise in mobile phone snatching’.

Several months later, a colleague from City was writing an article for a national newspaper on the subject, and needed some figures. Suddenly the Islington example was on the map again, as the 400% increase figure made it into the Guardian.

Before I knew it, the BBC had published an article on mobile phone theft. And what was the example used? Yup, you guessed it, Islington, snatching, 400%.

This figure is accurate and informative, so was recycled as an example several times. Nothing wrong with that as my original data was accurate. But in my next post I want to look at the dangers of this phenomenon, or what happens when recycling goes wrong.


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