NCOC Featured Discussion

Citizen Superheroes: Is There an App for That?

February 22, 2011
From video games, to smartphone apps, to geo-tagging on Facebook, technology plays an increased role in the way citizens respond to community emergencies and, in some cases, fight back against crime. In addition to citizen initiatives, law enforcement agencies, emergency responders and local government are encouraging two-way communication with citizens in order to take advantage of these “Citizen Superheroes.” While our last discussion explored the role of “Citizen Superheroes” in fighting crime as costumed and cape crusaders, this week we’ll explore the technology weapons in their arsenal that allow even the most shy citizen to get involved.

Before we get to the newest advances in technology, we’ll first take a look at how low-tech (relatively) advances are empowering citizen superheroes. One natural evolution is text messaging (e.g. Crime Stoppers USA), which the rest of the world has used for a long time to send in tips about corruption and crime. Texting is a lower-barrier method than a voice call and saves time for authorities to answer calls from those who need it the most. Crime prevention officers like Stephanie Martin argue that offering this service will help “young people to feel safe about reporting crime and not fear retaliation.” It might also help that there might even be a reward for tips that lead to an arrest or criminal filing.

Technology not only helps law enforcement agencies solicit tips about crime, but also helps emergency responders in the middle of a crisis. For example, in California, emergency responders got help from “citizens near a wildfire in Griffith Park in 2007 [when they] tweeted to the LAFD about wind direction and smoldering hot spots, which helped firefighters control the 800-acre blaze.” The fire department in city of San Ramon, California has a smartphone application that mobilizes CPR-certified volunteers when their services are needed. Using GPS location and text messages, 9-1-1 dispatchers can notify trained individuals when someone in their immediate area who needs CPR. In many cases, this means individuals are the first responders and can provide life-saving resuscitation until ambulance or medical professionals arrive.

To help local government address community issues that might contribute to unsafe neighborhoods, smart phone apps like SeeClickFix allow individuals to report public safety issues. For example, users can take a picture of a broken streetlight and electronically submit it to city officials for fixing. This is a service similar to a non-emergency service like New York City’s 311 and is popular with such mid-major cities as Omaha, Nebraska and Plano, Texas – the top two active cities on the site.

For cities and agencies that are looking to harness the capability of social media for such uses as stated above, the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s (IACP) Center for Social Media is a terrific online resource that walks Chiefs of Police through why they should get involved in social media, how to develop strategy and policy, and finally, how to tie it all together and put it into action.

Technology can also help citizens empower and educate each other on safety issues. Maybe you or someone you know has been harassed by strangers at the street, cat-called from a distance, or threatened from a more intimate range. The website, allows you to report occurrences and create a geo-map to highlight areas where this activity may be particularly prevalent. Ihollaback is an example of another innovation that takes social media concepts and technology and puts it into the hands of citizens to organize their communities and keep their streets safe.

Beyond video games, geo-tagging and text messaging, even elected officials are getting creative about using technology. Huntington Beach, California, a place where many go to party, is considering public shaming as a means to dissuade criminal activity. On Facebook. NPR reports that “Councilman Devin Dwyer has proposed posting, on Facebook, the mug shot of anyone arrested more than once for driving while drunk. He initially wanted to post a photo of anybody caught driving under the influence, but scaled back his plan.”

With so many ways (and likely many more to come) to engage in crime-fighting and emergency response, it seems that both citizens and authorities are finding positive ways to work together. According to IACP’s report on how government agencies are using social media, the largest barrier to social media adoption and optimization is staff time and resources.

Discussion questions:
1. Are there other examples of where this is working well in communities?
2. As more and more citizen superheroes use technology to fight back against crime, how will authorities deal with the influx of information and staff time?
3. Should authorities begin to allow citizen superheroes to become a more formal part of the crime-fighting team or do authorities need to allocate budgets and resources differently?

Piece contributed by commentator Karlo Barrios Marcelo, CEO of Karlo Marcelo Consulting, LLC.

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1 Comment
By Mel Jones at 4:25 PM on Apr 8th, 2011
Clearly we need to help ourselves as a society as a whole. With the deep budget cuts coming from everywhere we all need to do what we can to be part of the solution. I recently was asked to participate in a "new and improved" method of neighborhood watch. Well, it wasn't new and certainly improved. The only thing different was the concept of a phone tree. Sadly, we all don't live in a retiremnet community with twenty little old ladies doing nothing all day but watching our house. When I travel during the day for my job, I see countless things that should be told to the police, city crews and so on. What we need is a local SMS/email clearing house for citizens to send messages and photos along with GPS. Let someone look into it. Now, thousands of street level cameras and eye are at your disposal. Register folks and track them via GPS during working hours. Text them to drive by an intersection, snap a pic and send it back. WOW! What power that would be.
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