Crowdsourcing Crime Part I: The Good Guys

December 13th, 2010 by

S is for Supersexy Superhero by karla @ FlickrFrom Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe, great detectives have generally been diehard loners. Never, even when faced with the most mind-mangling mystery do they shout out for help from the crowd. Which makes me wonder how my favorite fictional P.Is would have coped with the recent rise of international, crowd-based crime fighters.

Sleuths in Seattle
A few blogs ago I wrote an impassioned plea (angry rant) about crowd efforts to fight speeding and car crime. Why don’t the police get onboard with apps like Waze I demanded? Well it turns out the cops are way ahead of me, at least those in the U.S home of rain, grunge and dubious romantic comedy, Seattle. After reading the blog, a friend of mine sent me a link to this local news report.

Not content with their 7000 regular Twitter followers, Seattle police have launched Getyourcarback on Twitter. Police post details of stolen vehicles (plates, color, make and model etc) online, hoping the crowd will spot and report back if they see the cars. If it works, the scheme could be extended to descriptions of crime suspects and traffic alerts.

World Police
Intrigued, I probed a little further (did a Google search): turns out the rise of the smart phones with GPS location has led to a surge in crime spotting apps, mostly in the US. Projects like Postacrime, SpotCrime and Crime Reports all use tips from the crowd to map criminal activity. Working with thousands of law enforcement agencies Crime Reports is definitely the most ambitious of the gang. The app uses the crowd, not just to report crime, but to analyze data and form online neighborhood watch groups in local areas.

In Kenya – one of the most tech-savvy African nations – a project called Hatari allows the citizens of Nairobi to submit reports and locations of crime and corruption to a website via text, tweet or web form. It’s built on the celebrated Ushahidi platform and founders are working with backers to get a short code that’ll make texting reports free.

If you live in Seattle or Atlanta then crowdsourced crime reporting is just one more nugget of data into the vast melting pot of police reports, databases and web apps available. In Nairobi though, Hatari is one of the first attempts to build a publically available, visual, crime database. And it’s not without risks either – I can’t imagine corrupt Kenyan cops take too kindly to having their photo snapped in the middle of trying to harass you.

With the crowd taking more and more steps to fight crime, perhaps it’s time for a new kind of detective too. A nerdy P.I who solves cases from his bedroom with nothing more than his wits, an iPhone and a massive Twitter following? Maybe it’s not quite bestseller material…