Many businesses dream of turning their everyday data analytics tools into revenue-generating machines. So it was a notable development when the New York City police parlayed its crime prevention analytics project into a money-making venture with Microsoft.
Unveiled this August, the New York Police Department’s Domain Awareness System (DAS) is a data aggregation and real-time analytics tool that extrapolates, pools and dices public safety data to help NYPD investigators and analysts combat criminal activity and identify terrorist threats.
The $40-million system collects, integrates and archives data from multiple sources including thousands of closed-circuit TV cameras, motor vehicle license-plate readers, 911 calls, radiation detectors and public safety records covering the city’s five boroughs.
Armed with this crime-fighting software, police can scan the license plates of get-away cars, extrapolate details about terrorism suspects from criminal databases and receive real-time alerts on potential security threats. For instance, if a suspicious package is found at the corner of a busy intersection in midtown Manhattan, an NYPD investigator can use DAS to pull up archived video feeds to see who may have left the package, what time of day, and the license plate of the car he used to leave the scene. Next, the investigator can cross-reference the license plate scan with a suspect’s criminal records. These kinds of analyses pursued in real-time can speed up investigations and improve public safety, officials said.
The Domain Awareness System is the latest in a growing list of law enforcement agencies using data analytics to fight crime. Agencies in Baltimore County, Md., Nashville, Tenn., and Rochester, N.Y., are among those that piloted a Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety system in 2008 that uses geo-mapping technology to flag crime and traffic accident hot spots.
But the initiative does mark the odd time a police department has joined forces with a tech titan to fight crime—and make a little money. Microsoft, who helped build DAS, will jointly market the system to other police departments around the world. The NYPD will receive 30 percent of revenue from sales of the system.
Combining Microsoft’s technical brain trust with the NYPD’s street smarts is a win-win situation, according to Antonia de Medinaceli, director of fraud analytics at Elder Research, a data mining consultancy in Charlottesville, Va. “Typically software vendors jump all over these public sector applications. For them, it offers compelling case studies to help sell more of their software and highlight their capabilities,” de Medinaceli says.
In turn, the NYPD benefits from Microsoft’s formidable sales force and marketing savvy. “Why not have an IT company lead the charge?,” says Derek Werthmuller, director of technology, innovation and services at the University at Albany’s Center for Technology in Government. “That’s what Microsoft does—they partner with companies to deploy technologies. The NYPD isn’t in the business of selling software.”
Nevertheless, not everyone is singing the praises of the NYPD’s data analytics system. The term “Big Brother” has been bandied about by the media since the NYPD unveiled the system. “Any time you have a government entity collecting and storing data, the first thing you think about is privacy concerns,” says de Medinaceli. “The NYPD needs to give a lot of thought to the use of the data, the protection of the data, and eventually what they’ll do with it. The last thing you want, from a citizen’s point of view, is for your data to be accessed for a completely different purpose.”
To address these concerns, DAS is stationed in the NYPD’s Lower Manhattan Security Initiative command-and-control center in an office tower and is monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week by NYPD personnel and stakeholder representatives. Guards must use badges and ID cards to access logs and locked facilities.
The NYPD has also established public security privacy guidelines around the system’s data to “ensure that appropriate privacy protections exist.” For instance, video feeds are archived for 30 days and then destroyed. License plate data, on the other hand, will be retained for five years. The NYPD is also working on a digital watermarking technique to create an audit log of where and when data is accessed.
In the end, though, says de Medinaceli, “It’s hard for people to complain about using technology when it’s to fight bad guys and reduce crime.” And hopefully, generate a little revenue for a cash-strapped city.
Cindy Waxer is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and a contributor to publications including The Economist and MIT Technology Review. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Cwaxer.