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In the (very hard) sci-fi series "Person of Interest", why is it that every single Person of Interest is in New York City? I realize that from a practical standpoint, they're shooting in New York, but in-universe, surely the System would detect patterns in other large cities?

Was there an explanation of why this is so, or this just an unstated conceit of the show?

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    I await the point of view that POI is not a sci-fi series. I'm open to that...let me know what you think. I would say that it is because of the central conceit of the System. It's been well-constructed to be plausible, but speaking as a software engineer, it's simply not possible. – Chris B. Behrens Dec 21 '11 at 18:31
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    There is only one city in America. There is only one city in the world. — They Might Be Giants, "P.S.O.K." – gnovice Dec 21 '11 at 18:36
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    I'd argue it is on topic. It may not be set in the future, but it is fictional and based around a technology not known to exist. – Kevin Dec 21 '11 at 18:43
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    To synthesize several answers below - Finch has programmed it that way to maximize their effectiveness at saving them. I didn't consider that Finch still had any control over the System. – Chris B. Behrens Dec 26 '11 at 19:41
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    @ChrisB.Behrens Regarding Finch having control over the System, I think one or two more recent episodes have demonstrated that communication with the System is less unidirectional than we might previously have assumed. – Iszi Feb 15 '13 at 3:31
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Ever see Bruce Almighty? Remember when he had to deal with all the incoming prayers, and that was just a small piece of New York? I imagine the System is like that, and narrowing things down to just NYC makes things a whole lot easier for Finch & Reese from a number of logistical standpoints as well.

Besides helping stay under the radar as Andrew has suggested, it also keeps Reese "in his own backyard". This means he can build and maintain useful connections (e.g.: Fusco), and he possesses and can further develop a generally indispensable familiarity with the streets and people.

Additionally, the System tends to pop out numbers of people who are in very imminent danger. By keeping the focus to just NYC, Reese & Finch have a much lower likelihood that whatever event they're trying to prevent might occur while they're making or executing travel arrangements.

Certainly, the System (if it was fully built, instead of just working in the little test region as one flashback demonstrated) should be able to cover the CONUS and then some. But keeping the scope narrow is probably just as much a matter of practicality for a two-man team operating under the radar, as it is a crutch for the writers.

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Note: Updating with additional information from the series, since the time of this post.

As we learn, in "No Good Deed" (1x22), it was Nathan Ingram, who used his administrative access to install a new function named "Contingency" just before the Machine was handed over to the government.

In "One Percent" (2x14), we learn that the Machine is sending the numbers on the "Irrelevant" list to Nathan, and he has been trying to save their lives. It seems like a easy assumption to make that this is the result of the "Contingency" function / backdoor inserted into the Machine by Nathan.

We now know that:

  1. Giving out the 'Irrelevant' Numbers to someone, was a function included into the Machine by Nathan Ingram.

  2. The Machine is a self-learning and sentient intelligence, which can, had and does make decisions for itself.

Looking at the real-world facts, it seems unbelievable that there is only a single act of premeditated fatal violence in the entirety of New York City, at any given time (and that there are actually 'breaks' when no such planned violence is imminent)

As such it seems likely that even if Nathan did not include such filtering as a part of "Contingency" from the start, then at some time after the introduction of the 'Contingency' function to the Machine, and the initial failures of save people, the Machine learnt and started filtering the list of all 'Irrelevant' pre-meditated violence. And only gives out those numbers to Finch which it thinks Finch would have the resources and ability to try and stop (or, as Season 3 progresses, which are increasingly 'relevant' to its own, and its people's (Finch, Reese, Shaw, Root's) survival.

Given that Finch is based in New York City, those numbers would largely be based in that location as well.

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My impression is that you are correct and the System would detect patterns in all US cities, and possibly those other countries which the System had access to enough data, but the reason that they stay in New York is that Finch doesn't seem in the mood for much traveling, and filters the results to keep them in New York City.

Remember in POI the US is a surveillance state. So any movement, via plane or train would add to the ability of the System to identify either Reese or Finch as Persons of Interest for whoever actually uses the System.

  • Aha! I have a hypothesis on the "identify either Reese or Finch" item...if you'll notice, whenever they are on surveillance footage, each of them is identified with a YELLOW box...I think this means that they're being IGNORED by the system, that Finch has programmed the system to ignore them. This implies that Finch has more control over the system than he's letting on... – Chris B. Behrens Dec 21 '11 at 18:54
  • Finch created the system, he certainly had total control over it, and I was under the impression that he still does. – Kevin Dec 21 '11 at 19:11
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    I agree there is that likelihood, but more interesting would be if there were other agents like Reese using it for less altruistic purposes. – Andrew Cox Dec 21 '11 at 19:11
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    @ChrisB.Behrens, the problem is that every communication from the System to Finch increases the risk of detection. It's not supposed to be sending him messages. Communications from Finch to the System are easy; it reads all the email in the country. He could easily have programmed it to read instructions hidden in certain emails. – cjm Dec 21 '11 at 22:59
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    @cjm shibboleet? – acolyte Jul 3 '12 at 14:12
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There is a reason for that. First of all, all of them were based in New York: Ingram, Finch and Reese are all residents. They are the "assets" of The Machine (apart from some being also admins; also that there are more of them later is also irrelevant), and since sending the "irrelevant" is a part of it's mission the assets are being assigned tasks of investigating those irrelevants. Remember, The Machine is a black box and it's intentional. It produces only Social Security number so that government can't abuse the system. That's why Samaritan was gobbled by government agencies hook, line, sinker and whole rod - because it was not so constrained.

So, since a number needs to be investigated - and even if there is not that huge a number of those numbers - it takes time. Machine knows the investigation takes time - it was programmed to give a lead for the investigation only, obviously - so it gives number in NY area.

That being said I believe there were several situations where numbers were "out of town", mentioned later in the show (when team gets bigger).

As a side note: The Machine can "detect" premeditated murder only when it's being planned. So conspiracies only, basically. NY is the financial capitol of the US, there's UN there, as well as other entities. Not unreasonable that high level scheming will take place there.

Also, while NY is not exactly murder capital (actually is not even close; murder rate there is one of the lowest) it is almost three times bigger than the next biggest city in US (by population). It is quite possible that with that low crime rate sophistication of the murder would be of a conspiratorial nature more often than not. But that's just my opinion.

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In season 3 we do find that the machine gives out some (irrelevant) numbers from places other than New York City such as the geeky kid in the plane when Reese was heading of to Italy.

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