I've decided that I should start blogging my project ideas so that they may be aired more widely in public. I have amassed quite a number of these, and have been sitting on them for some time, but more and more, it's looking like I won't have time to get to all of my ideas. Starting today, I'll be writing out ideas that I have had. If you have project ideas of your own that you think might be interesting to share here, let me know, and we'll get yours posted too. If you're interested in pursuing one of these ideas, go for it!
And so, without further ado, I present.......
Breaking the Cycle: Isolating Solutions to the Bike Theft Problem
This is something that I have been thinking about for a good while, but considering more seriously as of late. Basically, what it amounts to is 90% a social/political solution, and 10% a programming and system design solution.
Here's the problem: Last year, during the recession, about 15 million new bikes were sold in the United States, and according to the FBI, in 2008, about 220,000 bikes were reported stolen. Obviously, both of these numbers are suspect. The former doesn't include the many thousand used bikes that were purchased during 2009, and the FBI's number clearly doesn't include the vast majority of the bikes stolen. Other estimates of the number of bikes stolen are much higher than the reported number. One estimate is that more than five million bikes are stolen every year in the U.S. Another estimate from the National Crime Victimization Survey is less pessimistic, with a 2006 estimate of 1.3 million stolen bikes per year. Despite these differences in numbers, and the problems of under reporting, the point is clear that this is a major problem in the United States.
Solutions: Honey pots and databases
There are at least three simple and cost-effective solutions to this problem. I'll start with the most fun one, which is to place a GPS unit deep in the bowels of a nice bike, and to poorly lock up that bike in a high theft area. This, in theory, will tempt thieves to steal the bike, and will lead to their arrest. Such sting operations have been done in the past, and have had great success, since many of the people stealing bikes are mass offenders, that are also wanted for other illegal activity [ref]. There are worries that this may amount to inducement to steal (and thus may be illegal), and also that linking the person that has the bike after the fact with the person that stole the bike in the first place may be difficult. But both of these are fairly easy problems to solve, if the operation is done carefully.
The second solution to this problem is to create a LoJack system for bikes. As far as I can tell, such as system has not yet been created. As was mentioned in the freakonomics blog, such a system creates a positive externality: Your placing a GPS device in your bike also reduces the theft of other bikes in the area by creating a scare that those bikes might have the system as well. There are challenges in placing such a system in a bike, such as battery life and getting the satellite signal in and out of the bike, but again, these can be worked out. There is demand for such a system: When working on another project related to bike theft, I asked a number of people about LoJack for bikes, and they were all excited about creating and using such a system.
The third, and perhaps most important, step in breaking the bike theft problem is to create a better national registry of bikes. At present, there are a number of registration systems. Cities have implementations, there is a for-profit organization that does registrations nationally (this is where my bikes are registered), and there is even a registry of bikes that have been stolen. What we need, is a single national registry. It has to be good, and it has to be used. All new bikes sold in the United States need to be entered into the system before the sale, and if somebody is buying a new bike, they need to first look it up in the system. This is a cultural shift, and can be brought about in a number of ways. For example, sites like Craigslist and E-Bay can encourage linking to the system when bikes are sold, manufacturers and bikes shops can be required (legally) to check the system for the bike, a paperwork trail can be created and enforced, similar to the system for car sales. These are all ideas for such a system, but the point is, that it needs to be built, and it needs to be supported. Some states already have laws relating to bike registration, but they aren't enforced. The assumption needs to shift from "This bike isn't registered, oh well" to "This bike isn't registered in your name, it is not yours."
Some clear conclusions emerge when looking at this problem. First, bike theft is huge. Millions of bikes are stolen each year. And, judging by the number of thefts that are reported and trickle up to the FBI's database, people don't feel that reporting the theft is worth the effort. If we assume that five million bikes are stolen each year, and that of those, 250,000 are reported, that's a reporting rate of only 5%.
A second conclusion we can draw from the above is that this problem is solvable. Using social and technical approaches, this can be solved quickly and relatively inexpensively. Furthermore, it's quite likely that many of the solutions to this problem can be profitable for both the organization implementing it, as well as the bikers whose bikes are no longer stolen.
In parting, I will conclude by pointing you to the best resource I've found on this problem, which is the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing's report on bicycle theft. It's brief, to the point, and informative. Enjoy.
A lot of the information for this post was gleaned from the following excellent resources:
- Problem-Oriented Guides for Police, Problem-Specific Guides Series, Guide No. 52: Bicycle Theft (Sponsored by the Department of Justice)
- The National Bike Registry (A for-profit organization)
- National Bicycle Dealers Association
- Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reporting Program
- National Crime Victimization Survey