Author: Cole Zercoe
The public has never been better positioned to aid police agencies in investigations than in the age of the smartphone. In no other time in history has our world been so heavily documented; on just Facebook alone, over 350 million photos are uploaded every day.
Given that the key piece of evidence in a case may very well be sitting in someone’s pocket on their handheld device, crowdsourcing has become an increasingly popular and viable component of investigations. But harnessing the power of the public in collecting this cornucopia of potential evidence cannot be done successfully without advance planning. Here are five things police departments need to do ahead of time.
1. Determine how the data will be collected.
The first thing a law enforcement agency needs to decide is how the data will be collected and where the agency is directing the public to upload their material.
One of the biggest takeaways from some of the more well-known examples of crowdsourcing evidence – like in the Boston Marathon bombing and the Keene Pumpkin Festival riot investigations – was how overwhelmed the agencies were by the sheer volume of data that was submitted. In the Boston bombing case, over 13,000 videos and 120,000 photos were sent to investigators.
Whether you’re dealing with a large or small-scale incident, a lack of a centralized system to receive the information will cause major headaches for your agency. Setting up something like a dedicated email address isn’t going to cut it – a secure web portal is the best option to make it easier for your agency to sort through evidence and for the public to submit the evidence in the first place.
There are free and paid options available to collect crowdsourced data. Some of these are event-based, while others allow users to upload material at any time. Some are better equipped to collect evidence while on scene than others.
Weigh the options and choose the one that is the best fit for your agency. Keep in mind that many of the solutions on the market come with advanced analytics tools that can save your agency time and manpower in sorting through the data (which we’ll get to in more detail later in this article).
2. Determine where the evidence will be hosted.
Will data be hosted locally or via the cloud? With the rise of body-worn cameras, your agency has likely already had or is currently having this conversation. Many of the considerations are the same whether you’re talking about data taken from BWCs or from the public, such as cost, storage and security (remember, redundancy is key to protecting your data).
One issue unique to crowdsourcing that you should consider is managing a potential flood of evidence. This can cause further headaches if you’re hosting the data locally; most agencies don’t have the digital infrastructure needed in the event of an onslaught of submissions that usually comes with a large-scale incident. Cloud storage can provide the bandwidth needed to spare your servers from a meltdown.
3. Determine how the evidence will be triaged.
Sorting through crowdsourced data often requires a lot of time and manpower. Spam or irrelevant submissions can pile up, and there’s always the risk of exposing your agency to malicious files. Carefully consider your agency’s capacity to sort through what may be vast amounts of digital evidence.
Many evidence management systems can sort through the metadata of photos and videos and automatically tag and categorize them, saving time and money. These solutions also add a layer of protection against viruses. As with cloud storage, you need to weigh the cost of an evidence management system against the benefits.
4. Be transparent with the public.
It goes without saying that the public has become extremely sensitive to issues of privacy in our connected world, particularly when it comes to law enforcement.
Like other police technologies and tactics in the digital age, crowdsourcing evidence has fed into the “Big Brother” narrative. Given this, transparency is the key to getting community buy-in.
Be clear about how information will and won’t be used, who will have access to the data, and how this method of evidence gathering is beneficial. Keep the public in the loop as you’re crafting policy and procedure. Consider privacy when determining how evidence will be collected; if you’re going with a vendor, make sure you know who owns the data and who has access to it. Some of the services out there allow evidence to be submitted anonymously, which can encourage citizens to hand over what they have.
5. Get the word out.
It’s important to coordinate with city leaders and local media on how to best get the word out to the public when you need their help in a case. Social media, local news channels and press releases are just some of the avenues you can take to broadcast a call to action. As with any evidence gathering, time is of the essence. You need to have a promotion plan in place ahead of time so you can immediately call on the public in the aftermath of an incident.
Crowdsourcing can be a powerful investigative tactic, but without a plan, your agency is opening itself up to needless complications. Carefully considering how you will collect, store and sift through the data – as well as keeping the public informed – will put your agency in the best position to take advantage of the volumes of potential evidence captured by the public.