Crowdsourcing crime part II: the net has eyes

January 14th, 2011 by

microtask_internet_eyesAlong with tea, politeness and Prince William, one of the things the U.K is famous for is CCTV. These days the streets and shopping malls of London are heaving with surveillance cameras.

Nobody knows how many there are, but it’s generally agreed Britain is one of the most watched countries in the world. You have to wonder what this nation of polite tea-drinkers would do if they turned all the cameras off: loot Oxford Street? Storm Buckingham palace? Queue jump?

Okay, fun as laughing at the Brits is, I do have a point here. CCTV only works if someone’s watching at the other end. With such a massive network of cameras, there aren’t enough professionals to monitor every feed and, in any case, small businesses struggle to pay for full time security.

See it, report it!
Step forward Internet Eyes (with a name like that it’s like they’re trying to sound creepy). Subscribers pay £13 (around $20) a year and get access to live video feeds from convenience store cameras. Every crime you spot earns points, get enough points and there’s money to be made – up to £1000 for the top spotter each month.

The idea of net-based surveillance isn’t popular with everyone. What if an Internet Eye subscriber was racist, or particularly disliked old ladies with small dogs? Might they issue alerts which lead to innocent people getting harassed? Does giving out rewards make people too keen to see crime?

In the U.S they’ve gone one further. Texas Police have set up cameras specifically for net watchers to virtually patrol the Mexican border. There’s no money involved this time, the crowd does it out of sheer patriotic duty.

Gaming the system
Human rights issues aside, there’s been some fascinating stuff written on the idea of turning dull, repetitive jobs – like monitoring CCTV feeds – into more exciting, game-like experiences. At Seriosity, a consultancy that aims to get more gaming into work, they’ve experimented with inserting realistic looking, dummy bad guys into live video feeds, so security guards constantly have something to look out for, becoming more alert and engaged.

And if you can insert game mechanics into work, why not insert a little work into games? A stint watching camera feeds could become an optional level in online games, with virtual gold, points or level rewards.

The crowd is watching
The idea of a huge crowd of online informants, ruthlessly alerting the police to any hint of suspicious behavior isn’t exactly comforting (this is a neat of satire on the whole idea of getting rewards for ratting people out). But the sheer number of apps and sites show there’s a genuine desire from the crowd to get involved in crime prevention. It’s up to the innovators – the people who dream up and design these apps, to make sure it’s always really the bad guys who the crowd ends up going after.