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Social Networks for Better Policing: Facebook, Twitter, Blogs and Google Voice

Written by Tim Dees

American police officers today are more connected and have access to more information than any other time in history, but we are often less informed than a generation ago. The decline in awareness of incidents close to home, while at the same time knowing what is happening half a world away, is mostly due to the precision of modern information services. Now there is a “narrowcast” for virtually every topic imaginable.

Social networks are the newcomers to online communities. Social networks seem to get most of their publicity when something bad involving them happens, but they have some good uses too. Twitter uses Short Messaging System (SMS) or “texting” technology to keep people in touch with one another. Users set up free Twitter accounts, choosing any screen name that isn’t already in use. Users are then able to send “tweets” of 140 characters or fewer to anyone who is “following” them.

Users follow other users by searching Twitter for that user, or just entering a screen name into Twitter. If user Anytown_PD is followed by Joe_Citizen, Joe will get all of Anytown_PD’s tweets in near-real time. Tweets appear on the user’s Twitter home page, in their e-mail, or on a mobile phone or PDA that has text messaging capability.
If Anytown_PD is looking for a forger passing stolen checks at small businesses, they can send something like, “Stolen check alert—white male, 40s, 5’-10”, 200 lbs. with checks from Pearson Construction. Call 911 if seen—do not attempt to detain,” to their community followers. It’s just as easy to send Amber Alerts, pursuit-in-progress notices, reports of persons apprehended, reminders of neighborhood watch meetings, or any other relevant bulletin to community members. These aren’t viewed as spam because each user has to opt-in by “following” the sender and can stop following anytime they choose. Users can reply to messages using the same system, and direct whether they go to a specific user, or to everyone following them.

Craig Fugate ran emergency management services in Florida before he was appointed to direct FEMA. As Florida’s “master of disaster” (his Twitter screen name was “disastersrus”), he sent out 379 tweets in five months and commented that Twitter worked better than the state’s official communications system for getting the word out.

Another potential use for Twitter is as an internal communications system. With privacy settings properly configured, only those people you invite can receive your tweets, or even know about your account. If all the users have text message-capable mobile phones, Twitter can send out text notifications to everyone in a follower group. Agencies that don’t have in-car computers with messaging features or that want to send out alerts to specific groups of employees can set up Twitter accounts and communicate with them wirelessly and silently.

This is a good time to remind everyone to protect accounts like these with strong passwords that aren’t easily guessed or broken with brute force attempts. Strong passwords contain eight or more characters that include a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, punctuation symbols and numbers. If you don’t trust yourself to come up with something original, use an application or a site like www.goodpassword.com that will generate one for you.

For less immediate needs, another free system such as Facebook is useful for reminding your service population that your cops do more than write tickets. There are Facebook applications for mobile devices, but most people use Facebook on a regular computer. In the simplest mode, Facebook users post their status updates of 410 characters or fewer on their Facebook home pages. “Friends” of Facebook users see these updates and can post comments in response, which are also seen by all your “friends.” Users can invite other Facebook users to “friend” (this time it’s a verb) them, or a user can request another to be their friend. It’s pretty easy to build a friend network.

Facebook allows for more verbose postings on users’ profile pages. Text documents appear under the Info tab, back-and-forth comments are on the user’s Wall, and photos appear under that tab, grouped into albums or in one big pile. The Hillsboro, OR Police Department is using this to its advantage by promoting community events, drawing attention to its podcasts, and adding video clips it’s produced (search “Hpdlife Hillsboro” on Facebook).

Online communities are at least as active as their flesh-and-blood counterparts. They don’t take a lot of time to manage and can be delegated to a volunteer if desired. The point is that these provide one more way to stay in touch with the people you serve, allowing them to assist you in keeping the community safe, and they don’t cost anything but time.

Blogs

If your outfit has someone who is a decent writer and enjoys doing it, creating and maintaining a blog is a great way to elevate your community profile and control the message at the same time. A blog is a kind of online diary. Many blogs are little more than narcissistic exercises, read only by the bloggers themselves. Others, like the Drudge Report, are huge commercial successes with millions of regular readers.

The key to having a blog that people will read is to keep it current. If this magazine contained the same articles every month, you would stop reading it. A good blog will have something new nearly every time a reader loads the page. This is a good place for the “police blotter”—a daily log of what your officers have been doing. People see a patrol car in their neighborhood and wonder what is going on.

Post whatever information you can safely release in your blog, and they will know. Don’t assume any activities are too trivial to list. If a “quiet night” means that your department arrested a couple of drunk drivers and answered a few alarm calls, post that information anyway. This is a great way of reminding people that your cops are always working, even if what they are doing isn’t front page news.

Blogs can include photos and embedded video clips. If you don’t have ready access to your own video server, post them on YouTube.com and then link them to your blog. Enable comments (possibly moderated, so you can filter out profanity and mindless attacks) and respond to questions in subsequent blog entries. When you post a new blog entry, promote it by alerting your followers on Twitter and Facebook of the new post, leveraging one online tool with another.

To start a blog, go to Blogger.com or WordPress.com and follow the instructions. These services are free, and you can be up and running within 15 minutes. If you already have a department Web site, go to WordPress.org and download its free software. Their tools will embed your blog within your own Web site.

Citizen Observer

For those who prefer a solution that is more turnkey and less do-it-yourself, consider Citizen Observer. Citizen Observer is a commercial enterprise that allows public safety organizations to inform their communities using e-mail, text messaging and other conduits that are normally the tools of social networks. The interfaces of Facebook and Twitter aren’t difficult to use, but Citizen Observer caters to the technophobic. Anyone who can fill out a form on a Web site or create a Word document can use Citizen Observer.

Agencies who subscribe to Citizen Observer send notifications to the community via e-mail and text messages. Citizens subscribe to the notices by opting-in on the Citizen Observer Web page. There is no charge to citizens, and they can opt-out or cancel at any time. The subscriber agency can set up subgroups of subscribers to filter which notices they will receive. Some users might want to receive only missing child alerts, while others are interested in traffic tie-ups and accident notices.

The service integrates with Google Maps, so alerts can include a map of the location of the incident. It’s also possible to include photos with outbound messages, showing a mug shot or frame capture from a surveillance video. Users can place the output from Citizen Observer feeds on their personal pages in Facebook, iGoogle, Yahoo! and other aggregators via an RSS feed.

A unique feature of Citizen Observer is the ability of users to send anonymous tips in the form of text messages and e-mails, and for the subscriber agency to respond to these in real time.

Obviously, the effectiveness of this is dependent on someone monitoring the channel at all times, but it’s a step in the right direction. Citizen Observer’s promotional literature states that more than 80% of people under 25 are more likely to send someone a text message than call them.

Terry Halsch, President of Citizen Observer, said, “An agency with fewer than 25 officers would pay $4,950 for a two-year subscription.” If you are concerned about prank text messages sent through Citizen Observer, Halsch says, “95% of the text messages received contain good information, although not all are actionable.”

Combining voicemail and e-mail

We have moved from messages scrawled on slips of paper, to answering machines, to voicemail. The next step, already commonplace in some organizations, is a hybrid between voicemail and e-mail. You are probably using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) already, even if you don’t know it. VoIP runs telephone communications over the Internet, bypassing conventional Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) lines partially or entirely. VoIP is typically much cheaper than POTS, especially for long distance, but it’s not necessarily any more reliable.

You don’t have to be too concerned about a trans-ocean cable or a satellite going down because either system will automatically shift the traffic to an alternative pathway. However, problems occur when the local optical fiber or copper wire cable connection between you and the local telco or ISP is severed, because redundant systems are rare on the local level. The watchword here is to ensure that your critical communications systems have a backup or, better yet, a couple of them.

With that out of the way, it’s now possible to marry your voicemail together with your e-mail through several enterprise-level commercial products. Most of these will add new features to your telephone service, along with a substantial monthly bill. You can pay for these features, or you can get them for free with Google Voice.

Google Voice is a new product from the eponymous search engine company whose informal motto is “Don’t be evil.” Google bought an existing hybrid voicemail/e-mail company called GrandCentral and has now made the product available to everyone. Technically, you have to be invited to participate, but invites are easy to come by.

The system works like this: you create an account with Google Voice (GV), choosing a telephone number from the array available. The big downside here is that you probably won’t be able to get a phone number local to you (there are ways of dealing with this), although Google is constantly expanding its “footprint” of area codes with the intent of offering numbers in every area code zone. You can choose a number among those available. I tried to get (xxx) 846-3337 (xxx-TIM-DEES), but had to settle for one where the last four digits spell out my last name.

Once your account is established, you add your various contact numbers to your account (home, work, cell, Mom’s house, etc.), as well as however many e-mail addresses you want to associate with the account. If you already have a Google account, it’s best that your GV and Google everything-else accounts be associated.

You then click onscreen buttons to record your name and whatever outgoing greetings you want to use. As you do this, GV will ask you which telephone you want to use to do the recording, showing you a list of the numbers you’ve added. Choose the one you want, and that phone will ring. You’ll be prompted for a response, and you record your messages. There are quite a few other settings, most of them optional, depending on how you want to use the service.

When people call your GV number, depending on whether you have “call presentation” activated, they will be asked to record their names. They are then put on hold while GV rings all the phones you’ve told it to call, all at once. Answer any one of these phones (the others stop ringing when you do), and GV will tell you who is trying to reach you. You can accept the call by pressing “1” and start recording it, send it to voicemail, or listen in on the voicemail message as it’s being left. If the message turns out to be something you want to respond to immediately, another key-press will connect you.

Where does e-mail come in? GV has a transcription feature that converts the spoken voicemail message to text. The transcribed message appears as text in an e-mail sent to your associated e-mail account. Along with the text message will be a link to play back the recorded message itself. There will occasionally be errors in transcription, and there are situations where the transcription won’t work at all, such as when the voicemail is in a foreign language. However, in my experience, it works more often than it does not. You can also retrieve messages by calling your GV number from any phone.

You can start recording an inbound call (this does not work for outbound calls yet) by pressing “4” during the call. An automated announcement will advise that the call is being recorded, regardless of what your state laws might require. If you want to change phones in the middle of a call, another key-press will make all of your other GV-enrolled phones ring. Pick up the one you want to move to, and hang up the other. You can set a different outgoing message for every phone number you choose to provide to GV. You can send everything to voicemail if you like, or change which phones will ring when your GV number is called. GV numbers are also capable of receiving text messages, which appear as e-mail alerts.

GV offers far too many features to detail here—these are only the high points. This is a service that is too feature-rich to ignore, and the price is certainly right. You should check it out, play around with it, and look at the associated user forums to see what others are doing with GV. You can get the latest information and request an invitation at http://www.google.com/googlevoice/about.html.

The core of community policing is getting your citizens involved and partnering with them to solve problems. Communication is the first step. Most people are getting their information from the Internet these days, and law enforcement must adapt or be left behind. The mostly free tools discussed here will help you communicate more fully and with less effort than ever before.

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and a subject matter expert on a variety of police technology topics. He can be reached at tim@timdees.com.

Published in Law and Order, Nov 2009

Rating : 8.0


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