Will Axon Citizen take the chaos out of crowdsourcing?
Police agencies are increasingly relying on photos and videos captured by the public to solve cases. Axon’s new product is designed to streamline this process
It goes without saying that the smartphone has had a major impact on law enforcement investigations. Police agencies are increasingly relying on photos and videos captured by the public to aid in both large- and small-scale cases. But one need look no further than the most well-known example of crowdsourcing evidence – the Boston Marathon bombing investigation – to understand the challenges that come with collecting digital evidence from the public.
Investigators received over 13,000 videos and 120,000 photos from the incident – an overwhelming amount of information for any size agency. Since Boston, solutions to streamline collection and categorization of this evidence have emerged, but police departments have few options for doing this in an organized, efficient way. Axon believes it has solved this problem with its new public evidence submission product, Axon Citizen.
“In our survey of more than 1,500 people, 21 percent said they’ve captured photos or videos that they think could be important to law enforcement,” Todd Basche, Axon EVP of Worldwide Product said. “In that group, only 45 percent of the people actually did anything with that evidence. We found that 65 percent were okay with sharing their cell phone number just to receive a text from the officer. With that kind of grounding, we set out to build a product that investigators can use to help solve crime.”
HOW AXON CITIZEN WORKS
Axon views the product as having three components – the request, the submission and the triage. The process is simple – if a citizen on scene has evidence they’d like to share, the officer opens up the Axon Citizen smartphone app and enters in the witness’s phone number. Through Axon’s digital evidence management platform, Evidence.com, the witness is then sent a text to their phone with a link to a secure portal. From there, they can select images and photos from their phone gallery that are then uploaded into the Evidence.com cloud and sent directly to the police agency.
“Let’s say a fight breaks out at a football game,” Basche said. “People are there taking pictures. If the officer rolls up and there’s a witness at the scene that may have taken a photo or video that could relate, Axon Citizen allows the officer to easily and securely request that information and receive the evidence.”
In the event of a large-scale incident, police agencies have the option to put out a call to the community to submit evidence via a portal on the agency’s website that’s tagged with a specific ID. The link can then be promoted via whatever channels the agency deems necessary.
“It’s all hosted within Evidence.com, so it’s not some ad-hoc site that may overwhelm the agency’s servers and crash,” Basche said. “This is a robust portal that gets set up by us in our cloud.”
The data is then scanned for viruses, automatically tagged and categorized. This leads us to the third component of Axon Citizen: the triage.
As we saw in Boston, large-scale incidents can result in thousands of pieces of crowdsourced evidence. And who’s to stop users from submitting photos of their pets or other spam? That’s where the metadata comes into play. Agencies can sift through a large volume of evidence by filtering submissions by their metadata, quickly determining if the photo or video was taken at the location, time and date of the crime.
“Because it’s all in the Evidence.com system, submissions can be associated with cases and shared automatically. These are standard things you can do in Evidence.com, as it is all integrated into the system,” Basche said.
AXON CITIZEN IS AN INCIDENT-BASED SYSTEM
Whether it’s used to gather evidence in a missing person case or in the aftermath of a riot, the company stressed that Axon Citizen is an incident-based system designed to address the needs of law enforcement agencies in a way that ensures privacy, security and simplicity.
“This is not a general tip box, this is an incident-based product,” Basche said. “All the evidence that comes in goes directly to the agency, not to Axon. None of the agency’s data – video, photos – ever goes to Axon. There’s 14 petabytes of video in Evidence.com spread across all the agencies that have our hardware and software solutions. That’s the police department’s data; we’re not using that data.”
Nothing is installed on the community member’s phone, and the user can choose to submit evidence without any attribution or personal information – the phone number required to receive the text can be erased once the evidence is submitted. In a one-on-one scenario, the material is at no point collected by the on-scene officer’s phone.
Axon also suggests the technology may encourage interviewees to provide evidence to police that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
“We’re solving a pain point in that cell phones don’t need to be taken,” Steve Tuttle, Axon spokesperson and VP of strategic communications, said. “That’s the last thing anybody wants to do. They just want to get the evidence they have to the police.”
“Just having the whole world submitting things over the web or over the air isn’t a solution,” Basche said. “You need to do it in a structured way. We think Axon Citizen addresses the need of people wanting to be able to submit relevant evidence, as well as allowing police officers to quickly triage and get to the right piece of information. Our goal with everything we do is to get the officers back on the streets as fast as we can.”
Axon demonstrated the technology for the first time at the 2017 International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in Philadelphia.