We need the WhatsApp emergency services

by Alex Baxevanis on 29 January 2018

Just over 30 years ago, the battle against crime became sexy. Well maybe not sexy but it at least became prime-time TV.

Suddenly, we were all amateur Poirots, Morses and Marples thanks to the launch of the BBC's Crimewatch, a genuinely transformative way to include the public in police work. Meticulous re-enactments and dodgy-looking photofits that always seemed to look like a rarely-seen relative encouraged us to play a part in police work.

That was when the height of technology was a ZX Spectrum. And yet today we still seem to be stuck in an age-before-internet where which police are playing catch-up in (or willfully ignoring) how technology can be used to fight crime. They're still using 1980s analogue techniques in a rapidly-changing digital world.

Neighbourhood (cyber)watch

Which is why my small corner of south London is at the vanguard of a fascinating new movement – and why user experiences designers could be as important as fingerprint experts in catching the baddies.

There's a WhatsApp group in my neighbourhood that share images of crime, potential sightings and dodgy-looking gangs instantaneously. As a community, we've found a way for technology to help us not just make our area safer but also bring us closer together. Admittedly, there are a few issues about privacy, occasional false alarms and we've got to be careful about people waging their own vendettas against hated neighbours but, generally, it's been a brilliant addition to the way the community operates. It hasn't replaced the police by any means but it has given us a new outlet, since bobbies on the beat aren't quite as ubiquitous as they once were.

Not surprisingly, the police now want to get in on this unique fostering of community spirit and Batman-esque ingenuity – except they're going about it in completely the wrong way. Instead of tapping into a highly intuitive, responsive and easy-to-use 'neighbourhood watch' platform in which the user experience is paramount, they're still trying to get people to report what they see using long online forms that don't allow for two-way conversation and meaningful follow up.

There's an old adage which has never been truer – if it ain't broke, don't fix it. In this case, the police are trying to build an outdated system when instead they should be using a popular tool – in this case an app - that is already being used by people.

Why rebuild the wheel?

It's not just the police, it's all local authorities. Disruptive technology has created a culture in which users have seized the initiative from traditional gatekeepers and stakeholders. By taking control, we have created user experiences that match our needs – rather than user experiences designed by people sitting inside corner offices operating under instructions from unimaginative bureaucrats.

These organisations should be capitalising on the success of user-generated systems by integrating their platforms with existing – and successful – operations.

There's already a drive for what's being called the Local Government Digital Service, in which all sorts of thought leaders have got involved. Not many of them, it must be said, design experts. But that's 326 local authorities in England alone, constantly sucking up precious resources to redesign individual platforms.

The UX challenge – as we at Webcredible are aware of as much as anyone – is for these enormous and cumbersome organisations to rebuild their systems as swiftly as possible and without incurring a massive expense.

What better way than to engage with communities first – before redesigning their systems – and trying to link in with what is already being used. It could save tens of millions of pounds.

Of course there are certain ethical, political and privacy considerations that come with this change in approach – especially if we're talking about app-related crime-fighting scenarios. UX companies like ours thrive on the challenge of solving issues that touch about security, authenticity and whether so-and-so has a beef with someone else and wants to shop them to the police for no reason at all.

And then there are concerns about how artificial intelligence may impede the way people go about their daily lives, as well as the quality of information that such technology is able to harvest.

But above all this is a simple truth – people are making technology work for them, to make their lives better. The challenge is for local authorities to use these advances rather than try to change them.

Alex Baxevanis is Experience Director at Webcredible, to discuss his past projects or opportunities to work with us at Webcredible just say Hello@Webcredible.com.

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