Information and communication technologies are dramatically transforming the way governments, private actors and people interact. With the advent and spread of technologies – especially wireless connectivity and wearables – new forms of communication and information exchange are possible.
Not surprisingly, technological innovations are having a profound effect on the form and content of law enforcement. Alongside big data surveillance systems, police officers in the Global North are testing body cameras. Studies are demonstrating that they can reduce police violence and complaints against officers.
But what are the possibilities for the use of these new technologies for improving law enforcement in the South? A new initiative led by the Igarapé Institute is seeking to answer this question. Working with partners across Brazil and South Africa, the Institute is testing open source mobile phone based tools to improve public safety and police-community relations. The initiative is called “smart policing”.Read more
The smart policing project is centered on an Android application (called CopCast) downloaded on a smart phone and an administrative web interface. It is elegantly simple. Each officer logs on the system and affixes the mobile device on their vests. CopCast then undertakes three functions: gathering real-time GPS locations, recording video and audio, and live-streaming video to senior personnel on demand.
What is more, smart policing also allows for the gathering and inspection of analytical information related to the officers’ movements and activities. Approved senior officers can examine stored location, video and audio data to help with investigations and performance reviews. Smart policing thus adds an additional layer of accountability and transparency.
The process of designing CopCast was also innovative. An open source platform, the app was developed through repeated iterative exchanges between the Igarapé Institute, police captains, officers and citizen groups and researchers in Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, F lorianopolis and Johannesburg. The Institute´s team of engineers conducted field tests, adapted code, and routinely updated the tool on the basis of feedback.
Another goal of smart policing is to trigger debate on the relationships between new technologies and public safety in countries like Brazil and South Africa. Indeed, there are real tensions when introducing surveillance tools, not least balancing public safety against individual rights to privacy. As such, the Institute routinely publishes opinion pieces and articles in the global media to provoke wider critical reflection.
Smart policing – and CopCast in particular – represents the first time open source mobile solutions are being used by police to improve public security. The project was launched in 2013 with tests started up in challenging urban settings in both Brazil and Africa throughout 2014 and 2015. More than 50 police officers are currently involved and this will be scaled to several hundred more this year.
The project is generating interest across Latin America and Africa, but also in North America and Western Europe. In the wake of widely publicized incidents of police brutality in Ferguson and New York in 2013 and 2014, tens of millions of dollars have been devoted to equipping police in the US with body cameras. But these are “closed” systems and extremely expensive to maintain and upgrade. Smart policing is especially attractive because it is free of charge and adapatable to multiple settings.
Smart policing – and CopCast – can be used in a wide range of environments. For example, Igarapé Institute also introduced the technology to a High Level Panel of the United Nations Department for Peacekeeping. Likewise, the Institute has met with civil rights organizations and oversight group who are also interested in exploring their personnel with mobile technologies to improve their monitoring capacity and enhance their protection.
The body camera space is expanding quickly. The Igarapé Institute, together with its government and non-profit partners in Brazil and South Africa will expand pilot testing in 2015 and 2016. A mature app will be released in the middle of this year, and a growing number of cities will also be involved in testing the product. What is more, working with Google Ideas, the Igarapé Institute is also developing protocols to guide good practice with respect to managing, storing and analyzing collected data.
About the authors and the institution
Bruno Siqueira graduated in Computer Science from the Universidade Federal Fluminense and has a Master’s Degree in software engineering from the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He has worked for 11 years on developing software and project management. At the Igarapé Institute, he works as the lead developer of the smart policing initiative.
Robert Muggah is the research director of the Igarapé institute, in Brazil, and also leads research at the SecDev Foundation, in Canada. He earned a PhD from the University of Oxford and has worked in more than 50 countries on issues of security and development. In 2014 he gave a TED talk on the future of security in cities and also spoke on the rise of smart cities and cyber cartels at the Web Summit.
The Igarapé Institute is a southern think- and-do tank devoted to evidence-based policy and action at the interface of security and development. The Institute works on citizen security, drug policy and international cooperation. Since 2011, the Institute has worked with dozens of partners in Brazil, across Latin America and Africa to design solutions to improve safety and reduce violence.