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PoliceTech report looks at how startups can work with UK police

A new report looking at how startups can penetrate the policing market has been released, but there are still a number of practical and ethical challenges facing SMEs moving into the space

A new wave of tech startups is set to transform policing in the UK by helping forces across the country change how they operate.

The 75 most innovative startups are discussed at length in a new report by Public, which was set up by former Number 10 aide Daniel Korski, previously special advisor to David Cameron, to bridge the gap between startups and the public sector.

The startups detailed in the report range from data analytics firms like DataMinr to predictive policing companies like PredPol and HunchLab, all of which have the potential to dramatically change how police operate.

One startup, Chorus Intelligence, has been developing data cleaning software since 2011, and is already used by 85% of the UK’s police forces, as well as every counter-terrorism and Home Office immigration enforcement unit.

“Every software company in the world exports into an Excel spreadsheet,” said Richard Helson, Chorus Intelligence’s customer relationship director.

“Some are really clean, some are really dirty, and we will take any of that data and clean it to an evidential standard. Police officers can’t make judgements on that data unless it is cleansed.”

According to Helson, however, Chorus is still waiting on payment for services rendered three years ago, highlighting procurement speed as a major issue in the policing space.

Think local

“Here’s the news: the police system and the taxpayers have been utterly screwed over in the past decade through inefficient procurement and a seller’s paradise, so it’s time for change,” said policing minister Nick Hurd at the report’s launch event.

“The challenge is how to create an ecosystem that connects the innovators in the police system to the people who know what the problems are.”

One of the report’s authors, Blair Gibbs, added: “My view is that none of those barriers that still exist are a reason why a police force can’t form a partnership with an interesting SME. I think in some ways we’re asking people to take a different perspective.

“There will always be a place for national systems [like the Home Office at the centre], but when you look at places like North America, it’s the other end of the extreme – they’ve got a very hyper-localised system,” he said.

“One advantage of a very fragmented system is of course for the SME market – you can find many more buyers at a lower level that you can at least prove your product with.

“That being said, policing in the UK is interesting, because even the smaller county forces are big enough that the SME that wins some important project with that particular force can scale over time.”

Gibbs concluded that SMEs should focus on building relationships with local forces and Police and Crime Commissioners where they will be able to prove their product much more easily.

Further challenges

The report does warn, however, that shiny new tech is not a silver bullet. “A single product or service is never going to solve all your problems, and policing is too complex a discipline to be radically improved overnight by any one piece of technology.”

The use of algorithmic data, for example, presents a number of practical, legal and ethical challenges for any industry, but particularly in policing, where public trust is essential for maintaining legitimacy.

“Machine learning tools are very intelligent in some senses and very stupid in others,” said Jaime Grace, a senior lecturer in law at Sheffield Hallam University.

“Because they are just bits of software, they don’t understand the human biases that go into these big sets of data that they work from, so the only way you can tackle risk of retrenching discrimination in the use of these tools is to deal with the police officers that record the info in the first place.”

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Grace said that any tools like this should be built in such a way that they can monitor and take into account whether or not the information used has been reviewed or cleansed.

“Unfortunately the courts are very reluctant to put pressure on police to cleanse intelligence databases. The last time this was challenged in the supreme court was 2015, and the police actually ended up with an even greater leeway than they thought they had to retain what they call ‘soft intelligence’ about individuals who might be linked to crime – even where those individuals are not guilty of any crimes themselves.”

Accountability in the public-private partnerships

Police forces should also be aware of how a company could be perceived when entering into partnerships, as any moral or ethical issues that arise could potentially undermine public trust – particularly in already marginalised communities.

For example, while they are only mentioned briefly in the report, predictive policing company Palantir provide and run software for the NSA and ICE on behalf of the US government.

Many police forces in the UK already have contracts with companies that also sell technology to countries with questionable human rights records.

Cellebrite, for example, provide police forces (including West Mercia Police, Avon and Somerset Constabulary, and City of London Police) with a range of tools to help them extract data from mobile phones and other personal devices, which they have also sold to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, according to 900GB of data acquired by a hacker last year.

“As long as police forces are open and honest about how they have used a private company to build a tool for them, and we know in a transparent way how that private company is building pools of data into the databases or sets of big data that the tools use, then you can start to get that cycle of accountability going,” said Grace.

Tech startups

Headlight AI: Uses signal processing technology to intelligently sense and map harsh environments for autonomous drones and service robots. The use of its technology is not limited to law enforcement, as its 3D mapping technology can also be used to inspect public infrastructure, mines and other difficult-to-reach or hazardous environments.

Clue: Currently in use with 18 police forces, Clue has developed a single, browser-based API for investigation management that allows officers to quickly record and collate information from a number of different sources. This in turn makes it much easier for investigation teams to gather, access and share the information. In 2018, Clue secured funding from Innovate UK.

FUTR: Seeking to transform how citizens engage with the police, FUTR is creating chatbots with natural language processing software that is able to understand the tone, emotion and sentiment of user messages. It is hoped the chatbot will significantly reduce the high volume of low-risk calls made to 101.

Kaseware: Founded in 2016 by a small FBI team unhappy with the Sentinel case management system that had been built for them by a major defence contractor. It provides a single, fully index-able platform that includes evidence and investigation management, as well as a powerful data analytics tool that can generates connections between disparate datasets.

BlueLine Grid: Founded by former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton, BlueLine Grid equips first responders with a secured platform for instant messaging and group conversations that enables officers to collaborate and share information – all of which is done through a mobile app. The product was first trialled in a specialist SWAT division of the LAPD and is now used throughout the US.

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