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A custom-fit app for community policing

Apps allowing citizens to report crimes or incidents are now commonplace, but they generally fail to adapt local contexts, cultures and sensibilities. SecureU, a new app that addresses this shortcoming, is currently being tested in five European cities.

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The emergence of the web 2.0 has provided us citizens with a highway to higher participation in the society we live in. We can easily voice our opinion on a large-scale, but also potentially gather enough support to shape societal change, all this in record time. This applies to politics, for instance, but also to law enforcement. Since 2010, smartphone apps enabling citizens to report crimes or incidents have been cropping up at an increased pace. In light of the predominantly Anglo-Saxon approach to these apps, however, the CITYCOP (Citizen Interaction Technologies Yield Community Policing) project set out to identify the reasons behind the lack of European alternatives before developing a solution of its own, reflecting the diversity of European cities and societies. Prof. Dr Jeanne Pia Mifsud Bonnici, coordinator of CITYCOP for the University of Groningen, discusses the project’s outcomes a few months away from its completion in May 2018. How do you explain that user-generated content is becoming so important in crime reporting? There are several reasons for that. Firstly, it’s an innovative way to directly engage with police, and it gives community members a greater sense of contribution by providing them with more convenient options to report crimes, quality of life issues and suspicious activity. These have become essential components of the 21st century’s policing. Secondly, such methods of direct engagement and contribution help improve the efficiency of police operations, allowing more effort to be directed towards solving crimes and addressing community concerns. The project aimed to explain why the EU is lagging behind. What did you find out in this regard? The relationship between police and community members in the EU is unique. Our research showed that the definition of community policing varies greatly from country to country. Whereas some parts of Europe have decades of experience with community-oriented policing, for others, the concept is relatively new and just beginning to take shape in respect with cultural sensitivities and historical relationships with law enforcement. Because of this, there cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to technological solutions that support these programmes. Before innovation can take hold and bear measurable benefit, there needs to be a demonstrable commitment to engaging and building trust. How does your app solve these problems? SecureU takes the needs of both the community and police into account, by providing a local ‘flavour’ to each version of the app depending on where it is offered. Our research demonstrated that people desire more positive engagement with the police. Not only through increased visibility and interaction, but also with more police communication around issues that have a direct impact on their lives. Our solution increases communication both ways, with a privacy-by-design approach respectful of national and EU regulations. There are three main features. First, the police can send ‘alerts’ directly to the community, providing important information such as local events, traffic incidents and matters of public safety. Then, users can report selected quality of life and criminal incidents. Finally, the app provides various forms of municipal information and a link to make emergency calls if necessary. How does it work exactly, from both the perspective of the user and officers? The users first download the app from Google Play or the App Store, then select a country, city and language. They are then presented with an intuitive interface allowing them to see the alerts that they have subscribed to, submit (and review previous) reports to the police and obtain information from important locations such as police, fire stations and hospitals. Users can register their personal information and share their location for ease of reporting –which is required in some locations – and in case of emergencies, which can be deleted or changed at any time. For law enforcement, a web accessible dashboard provides several key features, the main ones being the creation, ranking and management of alerts; and the management of – and response to – reports from community members. All alerts, reports and emergencies are displayed on a map within the dashboard and can be exported to create reports for management and auditing purposes. The dashboard is easy to use, intuitive and can be used with minimal investment from participating agencies. What are your hopes in terms of commercial success? First and most importantly, we intend to provide a seamless transition for existing users, that is, project participants and early adopters of the technology who have contributed greatly to its success. We want to ensure that upon the project’s conclusion, there is no noticeable change in service that both the user of the app and supporting police agencies have come to enjoy. With that being said, we will have a structure in place before the project concludes, through which new organisations and communities can adopt the CITYCOP solution. This includes the development of a toolbox summarising the results of our research, providing a framework for installation and reviewing best practices. What do you still need to achieve before the end of the project? We are currently conducting our pilot runs in Bucharest, Florence, Lisbon, Dublin and Kildare. Before the project concludes, we will take the results of these pilots and prepare them for presentation at our final conference in Florence in April 2018. Our goal is not only to review and celebrate the successful conclusion of CITYCOP, but also to host an event open to residents and law enforcement agencies from throughout Europe, promoting our efforts and informing those considering our solution for use within their own communities. CITYCOP CORDIS project web page



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