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Analysis: software leads fight against crime

Police database spreads dragnet across UK

The cornerstone IT system used by all UK police forces is the PNC (Police National Computer), created in 1974. While it started with just a stolen vehicles database, it has been upgraded over the years to link to many other valuable information sources, such as sex-offender registries and licence-plate surveillance tools.

The PNC uses a central Adabas database from a German company called Software AG, said Martin Howarth, business strategy manager for PITO, the Police Information Technology Organisation. This is the UK agency that handles police IT procurement. While some of the PNC's code dates back to 1990, its hardware has undergone periodic refreshes, the last of which was about two years ago, Howarth said.

Primary applications of the PNC include the criminal names database and a UK vehicle registry. Police can access the databases by calling their command and control centre, where someone accesses the information for them. Police can also access the PNC with mobile handsets. Users of the PNC see a variety of interfaces, most of which are Windows-based GUIs (graphical user interfaces).

"What we provide is online access to all police systems, so forces can access all of these systems, all this information, nationally," Howarth said.

The system is heavily used. The PNC executed more than 101 million transactions, a 10 percent increase year-on-year, according to PITO's annual report for 2004/2005.

However, the report said the PNC's technology is becoming increasingly dated, and operating costs "are higher than should be the case". But despite the increased use, the PNC experiences only minimal downtime, Howarth said.

Over the past three years, the PNC has employed newer technology to link its databases. Developers have used an XML (extensible markup language) layer to connect to systems such as the Violent Offender and Sexual Offender database and Airwave, a secure digital data and communication network, Howarth said.

"To be fair, this is not an SOA [service-oriented architecture], but it provides those type of functions in the sense that we have a generic core from outside, which we can then translate into," Howarth said.

Oracle databases are used for those systems that lie outside but are linked to the PNC. Developers used J2EE (Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition) to build the XML framework.

Over the next five years, officials will plan how they can offer a wider range of intelligence information nationally that can be searched by police forces, Howarth said. "We are happy with the way we are going forward," he said.


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