How will digital policing empower the Frontline?

As new devices or ‘mobile data centres’ are rolled out to gardaí countrywide this year to detect roadside traffic offences, Simon Hall examines the endless possibilities in this digital policing space

Earlier this year the National Police Technology Council and the Police ICT Company announced the UK’s first national strategy for police IT. While the National Policing Digital Strategy: Digital, Data and Technology Strategy 2020-2030 does not directly apply to the Gardaí, its vision for a unified approach to IT across police forces and the agencies they engage with, is one that all forces should strive for. One of the biggest challenges facing every police force around the world is the need to collect and share data quickly and easily between officers, social workers, agencies and other emergency services. This is as true for routine tasks as it is for fast-moving incidents where officers need to respond to changing information in real-time. Like all of us, officers are handling more and more data all the time. They need a more efficient way to access and use it.

As a result of the regional nature of police forces, they have become accustomed to using bespoke solutions. Unfortunately, this has resulted in little-to-no interoperability between police IT systems, which makes data sharing very difficult. This is not just inefficient and increases the risk of errors, it is also a big demotivator for the workforce. This lack of interoperability is exasperated further when data needs to be shared between forces or with agencies outside of the police; such as the probation services, courts, social services etc. which all use different IT systems. From a practical level, that is a nightmare for everyone involved in serving the public. A common data model combined with a unified approach to data collection would solve this.

Today, almost every police action is followed by no small amount of paperwork back at the station. While individually these are relatively small data entry/retrieval tasks, they quickly mount up to a good proportion of an officer’s daily workload. However, with a mobile device which connects directly to a cloud platform which can read and update police databases in real-time, all of these tasks can be completed immediately from the palm of the officer’s hand, with no need to spend any time at a desk at the end of their shift.

But accessing police databases from a smartphone is only the beginning. With so much technology and processing power packed into such a small device, there is almost no end to their capability. The combination of a smartphone camera with AI for example has the potential to transform the way in which officers capture data and verify a person’s ID.

In most forces today, when an officer needs to verify the ID of an individual, they must typically radio into the station and verbally recite the information to someone who has access to the necessary databases. Or if they are lucky enough to have a police app to look up the data themselves, they must still take their eye off the individual in front of them to spend two minutes typing the data in. Both processes are slow and prone to error and add unnecessary risk to the officer who may need the information urgently.

By adding OCR (Optical Character Recognition) onto the mobile device, officers can scan and import data from a document like a passport or driving licence automatically, which can import the data into a form or instigate a database search to verify a person’s ID within seconds. With Artificial Intelligence (AI), OCR can do more than simply read and import text, it can actually understand the type of document in front of it, then automatically find the name, address, document number etc. to import into the relevant database.

When you begin to combine the speed and ease of cloud computing with the powerful capabilities of mobile smart devices with access to police databases, the possibilities for innovation and automation within policing are endless. OCR alone will save an officer two minutes every time they need to verify a person’s ID, all while keeping them safe. But that is just one small example of the potential of digital policing.

With a common, cloud-based, mobile-first platform for all policing tasks, every officer would have access to the same data and processes, with a consistent user experience, wherever they are, and on whichever device they are using (be it a smartphone, tablet, PC or anything else). What’s more, this common platform would enable forces to deploy new digital services far more quickly than today’s highly bespoke approach to police IT. New capabilities such as facial recognition, automatic GPS and health monitoring of officers, to the automatic allocation of policing tasks based on officer location, skillset etc. are all possible once you deploy a common digital policing platform.

Simon Hall is CEO of PoliceBox

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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