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Emerging tech that can make smart cities safer

Exponential technologies, big data, and advanced analytics are revolutionizing policing across Canada and around the world. While they can’t replace the human element and back-to-basics policing, as we wrote about in our previous post, these real, emerging, or aspirational technologies are disrupting traditional policing models for the better.

October 8, 2018  By Peter Sloly

They’re providing new ways to help police services connect to citizens, build trust, and strengthen relationships with communities. They can also improve public safety—a recent study suggests smart technologies could help cities reduce crime by 30 to 40 percent, and enable 20 to 35 percent faster response times for emergency services.1 That’s the kind of results smart cities the world over are seeking in their quest to capitalize on emerging technologies to help improve the delivery and cost-effectiveness of services to their citizens.

The following are some examples of promising technology enablers for police services.

Next-generation 911
The 911 systems we use to reach police and other first responders in an emergency haven’t changed much in the roughly 50 years since their introduction. Dispatchers field citizens’ calls and relay information verbally, using traditional telephone and radio technologies.

Next-generation 911 (NG911) services coming online can dramatically improve the quality of information. Operating over internet-based networks, NG911 systems can transmit a vast array of digital data. As well as calling 911, citizens can send texts, photos, videos, and more, which dispatchers can review and send directly to responding officers.


Smartphones, social media, and citizen partners
Smartphones enable citizens to capture and share detailed information in near-real time with police, whether through NG911 systems, social media sites, or dedicated public safety mobile apps. The ability to rapidly exchange information and participate in joint problem-solving on digital platforms can be a powerful way for police and citizens to build safer communities together.

One of the world’s first examples of this is in the Dutch city of Groningen, where police introduced an innovative prototype of an NG911 mobile app called ComProNet (community protection network). During a crime or other incident, police can use ComProNet to send a push notification to every user’s smartphone and launch a Twitter feed for the incident. Similarly, citizens who witness a crime can press the app’s alert button to connect to a police operations centre and send information such as photos and videos.

Predictive policing: Preventing public safety problems
Predictive policing harnesses the power of big data and analytics to sift through historical  public safety data, police blotters, criminal behavioural data, camera feeds, social media, and more to predict when and where crimes and other forms of public disorder are likely to occur.

It’s already in practice: Based on the success of a recent pilot project2, Vancouver police are using predictive models to identify areas in the city where residential or commercial burglaries are anticipated and then dispatching officers to deter potential thieves.

What makes predictive policing especially attractive is its potential to prevent crime, which is the best way to keep communities safe and increase community confidence in policing.  

AI: Combining police with algorithms
With NG911 systems, predictive policing, and engaged, smartphone-wielding citizens, police services could soon find themselves deluged with data and other information. Artificial intelligence (AI) systems can help here. They could be used to prioritize or consolidate calls made from similar areas or dealing with similar incidents—grouping multiple reports of an assault outside a club, for example. They could identify a caller’s language and route it to an appropriate dispatcher, or provide real-time voice-to-text translation. AI chatbots could provide human-like responses to non-emergency calls, such as reports of a stolen bicycle. These are but a few examples of the potential use cases.

Machine learning and neural networks are already being used to provide facial-recognition solutions for video surveillance footage, freeing police to focus on applying their expertise, experience, ethical standards, and empathy to complex public safety issues.3

New technologies offer great potential—and risks
The technologies we’ve described open up tremendous opportunities, but they also create risks and challenges. Key areas of concern include:

• Cybersecurity: NG911 and other technologies mean police services will amass more data in more formats than ever before. They’ll need to ensure they have robust cybersecurity in place to protect themselves from cyberattacks and to respond swiftly and decisively in the event of a breach.
• Data privacy:  Protecting citizens’ privacy and guarding against the disclosure of personal information is a top priority. A good approach to consider is privacy by design, which calls for embedding privacy into organizations’ processes, procedures, and ways of working from the outset, rather than bolting it on at the end.

• Community-friendliness: The most advanced public safety tools and technologies will be a waste of resources if they’re not intuitive to use. Designs taking a human-centred approach—ensuring innovations are desirable, easy to learn, and simple to use—can make the difference.

• Talent strategy: For police to effectively use innovative tools, they’ll need to recruit people with new kinds of skill sets or upskill current staff.

These are not insignificant challenges, but collaborating with other agencies and third parties can enable police services across Canada to mitigate the risks of new technologies while capitalizing on the opportunities.

These opportunities promise groundbreaking change. Analytics, AI, big data, and mobile connectivity have the potential to not only make our cities smarter but safer too. To realize this vision, police services and the communities they serve must understand that deploying new technologies doesn’t mean sacrificing the human element that’s so essential to their relationship. In the smart, safe city, high-tech needs to be high-touch. Building a solid foundation of trust and then improving key services can provide a great launch pad for further innovation.


1. “Report: Smart city technology could dramatically improve quality-of-life indicators.” Retrieved June 29, 2018.

2. “Vancouver police say new program would stop crime before it happens.” The Vancouver Sun, July 21 2017. Retrieved Jun 29, 2018.

3.  “Street surveillance is everywhere.” The Economist, May 2, 2017. Retrieved June 29, 2018.

Peter Sloly is a former deputy chief of police with the Toronto Police Service and is now a partner at Deloitte. He leads the firm’s National Security & Justice practice.

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