“Social Networking,” popularly defined in one sense as the creation of software-enabled virtual communities, has become a significant factor in how most Americans live their professional and personal lives. Many people, both young and old, now spend their days instant-messaging with coworkers and friends, sharing photos and movies with the same people, participating in discussions of common interest, and coordinating activities through a common calendar. Most of these varied activities, and many others, can be carried out through a single online interface or web page.

Social networking has even started to cross into the realm of “physical space” through the integration of GIS (geospatial information system) technologies and GPS (the global positioning system). Thanks to the network’s knowledge of where specific individuals are at any given time, the new virtual communities being created can even alert the person being called when a friend or colleague is geographically near him or her. Many cell phones now provide extremely precise information, in fact, on the phone user’s exact geographical location as well as turn-by-turn directions to just about anywhere.

By “mashing” this information into a given social network, friends and coworkers can find out where the other members of the same network are, which way they are heading (if they are traveling somewhere), and even how fast they are moving. For law enforcement and other legitimate purposes, the implications of this technology are significant and usually represent a major step forward. The potential social and political implications, though, are somewhat disturbing, and even frightening.

Worst-Case Fears and Remote Slowdowns

However, the absence of this new networking technology can be even more frightening. One company, in fact, the OnStar Corporation, has successfully played on this fear of technology “absence” by marketing a worst-case (but plausible) scenario of a person involved in a severe accident but with no way of requesting assistance. The OnStar network will “find you and send help,” though, even if the person in the car or other vehicle is unconscious. GPS-equipped vehicles allow the OnStar system to determine the exact location of the accident and to provide that information to an OnStar call center, which will notify the nearest emergency responders and direct them to the scene of the accident.

Taking this technology one step further, OnStar plans to deploy its new “Stolen Vehicle Slowdown” (SVS) service next year on a number of new cars. Basically, the Stolen Vehicle system will make it possible for law-enforcement personnel to use remote control to slow down an SVS-equipped vehicle when it has been reported stolen. The implications of this capability are huge – but so are the risks: What happens, for example, if a non-authorized user “hacks” into the system? Nevertheless, consumer-supported private industry is pushing the envelope by focusing on what GPS/GIS technology can do for law enforcement.

Meanwhile, of course, there is obviously much more that law-enforcement agencies can do for themselves by judiciously exploring and implementing these amazing new technologies. Many law-enforcement agencies, in fact, already have started to use GPS/GIS systems in operational settings (but many more have elected to wait a while longer, or are only selectively using the same systems). For example, some agencies may use GPS to support “call routing” (i.e., providing turn-by-turn directions to accident scenes) but may not enable their command officers to identify their exact locations in real time. The potential for abuse of these combined technologies, coupled with labor-union concerns, has to some degree limited, thus far, the potential operational benefits available from full use of the GPS/GIS networking technologies. The reason is simple: When political decision makers fully consider the potential pros and cons of combining the technologies, it seems to some of them, at least, that the benefits may outweigh the risks.

Nonetheless, with a sophisticated GPS/GIS-enabled law-enforcement social network available, command and control could know precisely which officers are nearest to an incident call and how long it should take for them to arrive on-scene. Responding officers therefore would not have to press an “on scene” button on their mobile computer system – a GIS-enabled command system would use their already-known GPS positions to automatically denote their status.

The High-Speed Pursuit of Advanced Capabilities

With additional and more detailed information available about each unit – e.g., not only the skill sets of the officers but also the types of vehicles and equipment at the accident scene – command officers would be able to take a more thoughtful approach in assigning secondary units to complement the responders already present.

Another potential benefit from the combined technologies would be GPS-based incident alerting. Officers physically near a particular type of incident – e.g., a high-speed pursuit – could be automatically alerted to join in if the information available to command officers indicates that those officers are already in close proximity to the incident. With a cruiser-level view available of the officers already in pursuit presented on a map, command officers could use their mobile computers to instantly plot not only an intercept route but also turn-by-turn directions as well as an estimated time to intercept.

Because the underlying GPS/GIS technology is standards-based, command-and-control systems could share information across jurisdictional lines. For a large, regional incident, a unified command system could show not only the current locations but also the political jurisdictions and other relevant information about all responders ordered to an incident scene. By sharing additional resource information, such as skill sets and physical assets, the unified command would have a clearer and more accurate real-time picture of a multilevel response to almost any given incident.

Law-enforcement agencies have long used location-based information as a helpful tool for tracking trends and performing detailed analyses of incidents across geographic areas. Judiciously used, the technology already deployed and available today should enable those same agencies to elevate their new technological capabilities from the status of after-the-fact analyst’s tools into the realm of real-time operations.

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso is the executive director of the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN) Program at the University of Maryland, which provides software and mission-critical data access services to first responders in and across dozens of jurisdictions, disciplines, and levels of government. Formerly with IBM Business Consulting Services, he has more than 20 years of experience supporting large-scale implementation projects for information technology, and extensive experience in several related fields such as change management, business process reengineering, human resources, and communications.

Translate »