Are innovations making cities safer as they get smarter? At a recent conference entitled ‘Smart Cities: Shaping the Future’, held in the United Kingdom, experts from all over the world shared their stories of how technology is being applied in their cities to create a safer environment. For this article, we spoke to panelist Amanda Coleman, the Head of Corporate Communications at Greater Manchester Police (GMP), about the use of technology and data analytics being used by police forces.
An interview with Amanda Coleman, Head of Corporate Communications at Greater Manchester Police (GMP), UK. (Photo: Chris Oldham)
How Data Analytics can Make Cities Safer
Data analytics is one of the tools at the forefront of the revolution in security technology. Although public safety departments collect and create a huge amount of data, they can’t always analyze or interpret the data in any useful way in real-time. This is where data analytics comes in – as the raw data is analyzed to answer questions, prove or disprove a theory, or test the validity of hypotheses. Furthermore, it’s often the small to mid-sized companies that have the ground-breaking technical know-how and can offer these services to government departments and big businesses.
These commercial software technologies are able to identify, classify, and determine the significance of real-time information. Through their apps and customizable Application Program Interfaces (APIs), they can provide up-to-date information when lives are at stake. APIs are basically commands, the format of which are sent by one program to another. The most effective APIs are robust enough to support the system and avoid failure.
Let’s say there has been a landslide. The APIs will enable the responder to get information about hazards, weather, traffic, and the best routes and times, rather than trial and error as crews race to get to and assess a disaster area.
Using data on routes, hazards, positions of reaction units and water points is particularly important for responders and intelligence services as it allows the public safety services to quickly prepare emergency response protocols and allocate resources efficiently.
While all major municipal and national governments use some form of data analysis to identify threats, predict adverse events, and manage responses, this can now be done in real-time, enabling a much faster and more targeted response. Members of the public also know which areas may be under threat and can take evasive action by changing their route, securing supplies, or even finding alternative accommodations in extreme cases.
Collecting the Right Data is Paramount
In order to ensure safer cities, data analytics is at its best when combined with effective data targeting and collection. This involves collecting open source information and running it through predictive analytics to combat and even predict crime or other calamities. Coleman explains that, in the traditional scenario, “police have been using traditional statistics on crimes, locations, times and information about criminals.” However, she says many public safety services around the world are gradually transitioning to the time-saving and more efficient technologies. A growing awareness of such efficiencies is creating a move towards utilizing ‘big data’ to harness open source information to benefit law enforcement and other responders.
Greater Manchester Police, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service and North West Ambulance Service conduct a joint training exercise in Manchester, UK.
An example of a law enforcement agency using text-mining is KLPD (Korps Landelijke Polotiediensten), the Netherlands police force, who use software to uncover patterns and relationships in a context that would otherwise be hidden. In one case, it took them just five minutes to uncover information from a PC hard drive that might otherwise have taken months. The Memphis Tennessee Police Department (MPD) has also used predictive analytics to identify, map and link information on hot spots for crime. This information has led to am 80% reduction in crime in a particular hot spot in their precinct, simply by redirecting the resources of the department more efficiently.
In the UK, trials are underway. In one instance, one product being trialled by three forces to assess its benefits in combating crime but also in reaching a point of being able to predict where crime may take place.
With data analytics, there is a shift from better tracking and management of huge parcels of crime data to using this data as a predictive tool. Many U.S. police forces and Federal agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), already use information from social media to screen individuals and make decisions.
Potential criminals have been identified through their social media postings and denied entry. The TSA recently barred two British tourists from entering the U.S. because their Twitter postings were indicative of plans to commit crimes in the country.
The function of a police force is to provide protection to its citizens from crimes such as abuse, terror attacks, drug trafficking, and human trafficking. Just imagine how much more effective this protection could be with the added input from billions of law-abiding citizens worldwide – all made feasible through technology.
Community Involvement Makes for Safer Cities
Around the globe, police forces are making an effort to interact directly with the community to ensure safer cities. According to Coleman, “The public has always acted as the eyes and ears for communities dealing with acquisitive crime, and now they can do the same, but on the digital channels.” She continues, “It has meant that people’s online activity can be monitored and analytics can assist in crime prevention. Social media has also brought us into an era where people can be more active in fighting crime. They are able to spot criminal activity and then channel that information to law enforcement agencies.” However, warns Coleman, this also becomes a challenge as it means the workload is growing and there have to be ways to allow people to directly provide the information.
In South Africa, due to the excessive crime rate, communities are setting up their own independent community groups in order to report suspicious activities in their neighbourhoods, and warn community members to be on the lookout or take precautionary action. The result has been a drop in crime in neighbourhoods where the community is actively involved. All the indicators suggest that while smart connected cities are important in fighting crime, so is community involvement. This can be facilitated by the use of apps.
Apps to Combat Crime
In various countries, police forces are creating apps and websites where citizens can report concerns and suspicious activity. “There has been a huge focus on developing digital engagement, which has encouraged people to work with the police and also be part of the solution in fighting crime,” explains Coleman.
Opportunities to work with police forces to help develop the online crime prevention, investigation and detection areas are now starting to be seen, she says. “It also means we can develop online services and encourage the public to use them for low-level crime reporting.”
As with any data, information provided by the public is only useful if it is accurate. Police forces around the globe value a good witness – and the same is true for online interaction in reporting suspicious activity. People who engage with crime-reporting websites and through apps need to be very clear about times, dates, and provide accurate details that could be helpful both to the police and members of the public.
Using apps on their phones, the public can check for events like “wanted” notices or missing people in the area. They can also find the nearest police station and police officers, as well as obtain police contact information. Apps become mutually beneficial, from assisting people in finding lost pets to helping the police identify hot spots and wanted criminals.
So far, according to Coleman, the public seems to be responding favourably to these tools. She believes the public are used to online services, like using government and banking websites, and will support policing efforts that involve online information gathering. In recent years, the public has responded to many police social media postings for assistance. In one notable example in 2014, an amber alert sent out on social media by the Sûreté du Québec resulted in a swift and happy conclusion to the case.
Engaging the community effectively is integral to the success of safer city policing programs. It allows for more effective policing with fewer resources, while also increasing the reach of the police force. “If people have confidence in policing, then they will come forward with information, provide intelligence, and possibly volunteer or work with the police,” says Coleman.
Securing Cities from Cyber-Crime
Tackling cyber-crime is of growing concern for police forces since it is so hard to track in the physical world. However, if a citizen comes across an online scam in their city it should be shared immediately to alert others. In Coleman’s opinion, “Cyber-crime is hidden away and doesn’t have a geographic location like most criminal activity. It requires a new way of policing to meet the challenge.” Consequently, police forces around the world have set up specialist divisions with the sole agenda of tackling cyber-crime. For example, the Malta Police Force has its own cyber-crime unit, as does the state of New South Wales (NSW) in Australia. NSW Police Force Fraud and Cyber-crime squad, and a growing number of others, have their own Facebook page providing tips, reporting scams, and other pertinent information. In fact, the Australian Government has ‘Stay Smart Online,’ an online safety and security website that advises people on how best to protect themselves from cyber-crime.
Efficient Systems for Safety
Lack of geographic boundaries means police departments need to cooperate and coordinate quickly and effectively with their international colleagues. Data analytics is integral to facilitating this large-scale global coordination. Indeed, thousands of police officers in the UK have been trained via cyber security company Veracode’s program, which fosters a high level of security awareness.
The National Cyber Crime Unit (NCCU) is the UK’s response to the cyber-crime threat. It works closely with regional and metropolitan cyber-crime units, as well as government and international law enforcement and industry partners.
“Keeping people safe is not just something for the police,” says Coleman. “It is for partner agencies, businesses, and the wider community.” The latest generation of products warns public and private organizations of threats and crises as they emerge, enabling them to take action to secure their assets and provide protection, or extract their employees from a volatile situation in a foreign country or on home ground.
These technological developments for safer cities are all very well, but as Coleman points out, “It is important to ensure that systems, apps or websites are able to function when under pressure. Once services move online there can be no acceptance of systems crumbling; their smooth running becomes a significant pressure.”
The function of a police force is to provide protection to its citizens from crimes such as abuse, terror attacks, drug trafficking, and human trafficking. Just imagine how much more effective this protection could be with the added input from billions of law-abiding citizens worldwide – all made feasible through technology. “In essence, gathering intelligence is the same, with the same checks and balances; it is just the methods that are adapting,” concludes Coleman. Welcome to a brave new, safer world!
Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychologist and writer with an interest in the psychology behind frontline work.