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Interview:

Hack the Police 2: The return of the original UK policing hackathon

This weekend (9-10 December), in the wake of the College of Policing’s Everyday Innovation conference and in the run up to CoPaCC’s thematic report into police ICT, Hack the Police 2 will bring developers and frontline officers together to take innovative ideas and put them into action in a sequel to the UK’s first and original policing hackathon. We interview one of the organisers, Edwin Burns of the Forensic Psychology Unit at Goldsmiths (University of London), ahead of the event.

So, what is a hackathon?

Hackathons are invention marathons, bringing together a bunch of people interested and passionate on a theme and challenging them to build a prototype in just a weekend. The weekend culminates with a show-and-tell and prizes for the best. It’s a great way of developing ideas to solve problems and building prototypes: all in one weekend.

Who is involved in the hackathon?

The hackathon relies, in this case, upon the developers, designers and programmers volunteering their time to spend a weekend with frontline police officers to apply technology to the solution of problems.

We’ve deliberately weaved in some psychology to the themes as we are fortunate to be joined by experts from the Forensic Psychology Unit at Goldsmiths.

This year, we have set out three themes to help organise the event, focusing on (1) collecting better first-hand evidence, and reducing false suggestions, (2) improving the comfort of citizens and building rapport in the interview room, and (3) tools for better officer wellbeing and mental health.

We’ve deliberately weaved in some psychology to the themes as we are fortunate to be joined by experts from the Forensic Psychology Unit at Goldsmiths (University of London).

What is the role of police officers on the day?

They’ll be invaluable – sharing their time across the teams of developers, designers, programmers and psychologists – and offering their experience, insight and knowledge of current policing challenges to help frame problems, develop ideas and create prototypes.

Why the three or four year delay since the first Hack the Police in 2013?

We were charting new territory in 2013 when we ran the first UK policing hackathon. The event generated a wide and varied range of great ideas and prototypes. At the time, police forces were still grappling with austerity and change on a scale not seen for a generation. 

Fast forward today and as a growing number of forces begin genuinely to roll out mobile technology with the ability to access the web and run applications, the ability for such prototypes to move into the field has grown considerably.

Do you really think police IT is developing for the better? And how does Hack the Police help?

One need only look to the popularity among the frontline of apps like Pocket Sergeant to see that there is an appetite on the frontline for better technology and better information

One need only look to the popularity among the frontline of apps like Pocket Sergeant to see that there is an appetite on the frontline for better technology and better information. Similarly, one can look at the roll-out of Samsung smartphones in Lancashire, or Microsoft tablets in Cheshire, to see a real shift towards mobile tech that integrates with an ecosystem of apps.

In fact, the success of the original Hack the Police has helped secure a commitment in the Met’s latest Digital Policing Strategy to examine how coding competitions and hackathons can bring third party innovation to the benefit of public safety in London.

Given this progress and growing recognition of technology as a key force multiplier that has still yet to be fully exploited, Hack the Police hackathons can serve a valuable purpose in rapidly iterating ideas and prototypes – providing fertile ground for forces, developers and others to understand problems, develop solutions and boost productivity and effectiveness in the field. That matters because it means safer communities, safer officers and fewer victims.

How did Hack the Police 2 get started?

It began when two students at Goldsmiths University, Lewis, a Special Constable who had run the first Hack the Police event and Rory a former Hack the Police participant and former Met Officer got together and realised the timing was right to go again.

We knew we had some really interesting options. Kevin is a creative computing student and a highly experienced hackathon organiser. I’m a member of the Forensic Psychology Unit at Goldsmiths, and we really want to explore tech solutions relating to investigative interviewing, and this seemed like the ideal way to do that.

How did you arrive at the three main themes?

We want something that helps police in those messy real-world situations when they turn up at an actual or potential crime scene and have a wide range of competing demands.

We decided on the three main themes through discussion. Lewis was keen to develop some tools that would help him gather evidence as an initial responder. That led to point one, better first-hand evidence and reducing false suggestions. We want something that helps police in those messy real-world situations when they turn up at an actual or potential crime scene and have a wide range of competing demands.

Rory spoke from the heart about the impact that crime has on victims, whether as police officers or members of the public. Policing is made up of normal people who we want to be sure get home at the end of their shift, so that they can play with their kids, walk the dog, moan about the weather and try to live their lives as well as they can – just like everyone else.

They have signed up for the job they do, and they do receive training, but that doesn’t stop them deserving any less support than we would want for our loved ones if they had to witness the things that the police often do. It’s why we selected the issue of police wellbeing and mental health. It also happens to have featured in the College of Policing’s Annual Conference, championed by Chief Constable Andy Rhodes.

Finally, rapport has been flagged again and again in intelligence gathering and interviewing. It can be tough to make that connection with a frightened or distressed victim or witness. It’s not easy to make that connection with a suspect. But what is rapport and what are the best ways of establishing it? Given the Forensic Psychology Unit is currently conducting research into rapport building and interviewing for CREST. It seemed natural to ask the question.

If people, forces, PCCs or others want to find out more, what should they do?

They should absolutely signup for the event at http://hackthepolice.com. Failing that, they should drop us an email and we’ll be sure to keep them in the loop. We’d also like to thank the awesome people who have made Hack the Police 2 happen: the volunteers attending on the weekend, but also our sponsors Blue Lights Digital, UKGovCamp, our media partner PolicingInsight and our venue host Newspeak House.

Photo credit: @IamHappyToast

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