Twitter and Facebook could be just about to change crime reporting forever…

Usual disclaimers apply! This post is about what I think should be happening – not what is happening. Also, these are my own views not those of my current employer.

In the last weekΒ Twitter has quietly announced a little change that could should have an enormous impact on how the public contacts public sector organisations in the future. The rumours are that Facebook is heading in the same direction.

Both platforms have talked about a hyperlink to start a private conversation with an account. Details of Twitter’s URL is hereΒ (and you canΒ DM ME! but only if I follow you…). Facebook’s URL (which has apparently already been rolled out – but I couldn’t get it to work for my own pages) looks like http://fb.com/msg/NameOfPage

The way that most public sector organisations carry out their business is through conversations – over the phone, of in person – so it makes sense that social media platforms, which are conversational in nature, provide the interface for the services.

Despite the stereotype of “you needed to fill in form B1“, and civil servants drowning the public in bureaucracy and red tape, the relative rarity of any individual interacting with any particular public service (how often do you choose to contact the police?), and the vulnerability of users who do contact public services regularly, means that there is usually a need for at least some sort of conversation in any interaction. Forms have a role – they ensure that the relevant information is all captured – but for me they are a framework and it is important to have they option to speak to a human if needed.

My interest is in policing, and crime reporting, so how does this affect this world? Reporting crime is something that the public are used to doing in person – over the phone or at a police station – not using a form.

Most industries have developed at least partial streamlining of enquiries – think of those infernal “press 1 for accounts, 2 for sales, 3 for new business” machines. Policing hasn’t got that (thank goodness!) because every case is different BUT there are certain details we will always want to capture and others that are crime dependant. You always need the victims name and address, and if it is a report of a burglary you then want the details of what was stolen. If it is a report of anti-social driving you want a different set of details, and if it is fly-tipping…. You actually want the council and not the police at all!

That last case illustrates another one of the issues with online reporting forms – the public doesn’t want to spend 20 minutes filling out a form to find out that the police don’t deal with it. They want a quick decision whether the police are interested, and then they will take the time to give more details once they’ve had those social cues. If we can direct them to somewhere more appropriate, then they will leave still feeling like they have had good customer service! A two-way conversation offers that early decision in a way a form would struggle to.

So how could these two new Intents (a technical term for a hyperlink that fires up a particular service or app), changed how we communicate with the public?

If someone has come to our website, they are wanting to do something…and that is possibly contact us.

I think online crime reporting needs to reflect the processes and systems that are already there, and augment them to make them more efficient. For instance, at my work, we have started to use pre-written responses in Facebook messenger to some of our most common enquiries. The call handler still replies to each enquiry, but they choose the right response (and edit if it if necessary) rather than writing the reply from scratch each time. The public gets the information they require but in a more human fashion.

Forms are theoretically great for collecting structured data that can go straight into a database (such as a crime recording system). The problem is that this data so has to be checked manually (the risks of duff data getting into the crime recording system are too great). Far better to collect the relevant data in the same way as it would be collected over the phone…but with an operator clarifying in real time, selecting the relevant data and only transferring the data into the crime system when it is suitable.

So what does online crime reporting need to look like? It is not forms and public interfaces. It is an operator interface that reflects how 101 operators answer calls. It is a queue of enquiries with some suggested responses, some questions that can be automatically deployed:

Can I take some details please?
What is your name? {tag response as str_name}
And your postcode? {tag response as str_postcode}
And your house number? {tag response as str_address1}

Ideally, it will learn from previous enquiries, giving the operator more appropriate suggestions as the volume of enquiries increases. It could make use of existing information – suggesting responses from “ask the police”, Gov.UK (especially for redirection to other partner services) or own website and police.uk.

Most importantly, it is a bridge between whatever messaging system you attach to it (Facebook messenger, Twitter DMs…) and the crime recording system. It is future proof (because every new platform is plugged into it with an API, and uses the social media platform as the interface) and “platform agnostic” (not caring it you are talking through Twitter, Facebook or any other suitable platform).

There are systems out there that already do this sort of thing in the private sector (Lithium is the one I am aware of, but there are many others I am sure), the question is who will build the first one that integrates with Niche, CAPS and the other public sector recordkeeping systems? And when will we see the first proper “DM us to report a crime” button?

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