One of the great opportunities presented by the Digital Panopticon project (and one of the most exciting in my opinion) is in uncovering more about the processes of crime and punishment by placing thousands of offenders, and their offences, back within the context of their own lives.
Tracing offenders through the records has been a preoccupation of several groups of historians and criminologists (for example Barry Godfrey, Heather Shore, Pam Cox, David Cox, Helen Johnston, Zoe Alker, Joanne Turner, and Stephen Farrall) in the last decade. On account of the laborious nature of record linkage those studies which have focussed on tracing groups offenders through civil as well as criminal datasets have been able to examine a few hundred offenders at a time. Those pioneering this methodology have taken the collected information and sorted it into ‘lifegrids’ which chart life events and changes for each individual. Lifegrids might typically include details of birth marriage and death, family evolution, employment and residential addresses, and offending and punishment history. Of course, the depth and breadth of documents and information available on different groups of, or individual offenders, dictates how much material can be recorded in each life grid.
Other than life-grid format, there are a number of ways that this information can be presented and communicated. Even the simplest visualisations are able to show the role that offending had in any one person’s life. This might be through indicating what proportion of an individual’s life was spent in custody, or how many offences were recorded against them at what stage of their life. It is possible to chart how someone’s offending accelerated and decelerated. From an institutional perspective it is possible to indicate how an individual’s weight and health changed over time, or how their behaviour and privileges impacted upon their experience of punishment. The myriad of ways in which this fascinating and complex data can be presented has some exciting potential for how others see, interrogate, and engage with this fantastically rich data.
To begin to explore these possibilities, we have been working with an example offender: Patrick Madden (one of a number of offenders included in Johnston, Godfrey and Cox’s ESRC funded research on ‘The costs of imprisonment’).
Born and raised in Sheffield, Patrick began offending around the age of sixteen. Although often motivated by property, Patrick’s offences were primarily violent in nature. Madden had 15 offences recorded against him over an almost thirty year period. Each of these was committed either in Sheffield or other close-by northern towns such as Wakefield and Doncaster. It was in these locations that he was incarcerated, accept for one occasion of penal servitude when he served seven years of penal servitude in London, and the south of England. It does not appear as if Patrick ever married or had children, nor that he managed to establish a life for himself that did not involve repeat offending for long before dying at the age of 52.
Patrick Maddens lifegrid, of course, contains much more information than this brief overview might suggest. Patrick’s civil and penal records allow us to know about many elements of Patrick’s life right down to his familial relationships and sexual preferences. However, even if we take the most ‘bare bones’ approach to Patrick’s life narrative, it is possible to start creating some interesting visualisations based on his experiences and offending history.
Yet the size and scale of the research being undertaken by the Digital Panopticon means that we are faced not just with presenting Patrick Madden’s life, but instead the lives of all of the ‘Patricks’ that went through the old bailey between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. This poses two distinct challenges which we will face in presenting the mass of information traditionally held in lifegrids. First is that the range of records being linked together for each offender is unprecedented. Some records are well known to our researchers and relatively straightforward to visualise, such as criminal registers that allow us to examine date, place and type of offence. Others such as the changing picture of family life that might evolve from three successive census entries, or the seemingly random personal or professional information that can be carried in a newspaper report, are far more difficult to quantify and visualise. This first problem will become clearer and hopefully less significant as more records are collected and linked. It should be fairly straightforward to identify the information which can be presented easily, and to adapt that which cannot. The second challenges we must meet is that of potentially presenting to other researchers and the public tens of thousands of individual life and offending histories. What we need to work on is finding a way of presenting a range of different information about our offenders both individually and in aggregate so that it is possible for users to access information about an individual they are interested in, but also to see how such an individual compares and contrasts with others in the study – something which enables researchers to identify how typical an individual’s experience was.
BG offered some initial ideas of how we might best achieve this when we met in Oxford. By creating ‘strand’ visualisations which present a mass of offenders by a few ‘key values’ – for example the year of their first recorded offence, nature of offence, or length of offending career – and then allowing users to further restrict what strands are shown to them by other values – for example sex and location- it would be possible to access information about a single individual, whilst getting a sense of how they match up to their contemporaries.
We hope that this will prove an excellent starting point as we work to develop future visualisations and methods of presentation which will allow the Digital Panopticon team, fellow researchers, and members of the public to explore, understand, and get the most from the fantastic wealth of data at our fingertips.