Just finished watching – I know, a decade late – the first season of The Wire, David Simon‘s amazing police drama about well, lots of things, but at least from a narrative point of view, a team of Baltimore detectives and their painstaking work to nail a drug dealer. The show won huge praise for its gritty, lifelike portrayal of both the drug dealers and the police, and certainly the depiction of police work as tedious, hard work is very realistic.
But what’s even better – at least for data geeks – is the depiction of how important basic data work is to moving the case ahead.
There’s a lot of beating up suspects to get information – or just get even – but what’s great about the series is the data work that (initially hapless) detective Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski does to first crack the code the drug dealers are using when they page each other, then carefully – and by hand – track the multiple phone numbers and payphones that they use to communicate with each other.
As police procedurals go, it doesn’t get much better than this. Watching Prez marry up phone numbers with paged numbers – a code – is a joy, especially as it shows the value of metadata in piecing together the drug network (a subject David Simon weighs in on more recently about the whole NSA revelations. Agree or disagree with him – and there’s plenty of discussion on both sides – he’s articulate and thoughtful about his point of view.) Prez, who’s basically portrayed as an incompetent street cop, turns out to have some of the kind of data skills a modern police force needs.
There’s more: Another detective, Lester Freamon, uses old-fashioned mapping (ie, stickpins on a map) to figure out that the properties the bad guys are buying up are really centered around a planned redevelopment of a slum area, and that they’re funneling money into campaign contributions to get a head start on which areas will rise in value.
There’s even a bit where Prez is sent off to get campaign contribution data.
OK, so there’s lots to like about The Wire beyond data. It’s truly a great show. But it’s made even better by showing how valuable data can be in investigations.