'We're on the cusp of a transformation' – plotting Police Scotland's tech future

Written by Jenni Davidson on 8 April 2019 in Features
Features

Assistant chief constable Malcolm Graham discusses how tech can benefit officers and the public

Credit: ACC Malcolm Graham - credit Katielee Arrowsmith

“It’s definitely the case that the systems that people are currently working with, and the measures that we’ve currently got in place for people to exploit technology, are far from cutting edge,” admits Police Scotland assistant chief constable Malcolm Graham, noting that there have been some “well-reported and understood significant bumps along the road” of trying to introduce new technology on a national scale.

However, he believes that this delay has put Police Scotland in a good place now in terms of being able to learn from others.

“My view on that is we had to do certain things in certain ways. The creation of the national service was the foundation upon which all of the benefits can flow and, whilst it’s taken longer than we would like to get to the point of introducing some of this technology, there are now great advantages and benefits from us being able to learn from other people who are a little bit ahead of us in terms of things like mobile working."

“And we’re getting the best of the learning from internationally, but particularly England and Wales, with the people we’re working with directly in law enforcement, to make sure that not only do we learn the lessons from things that haven’t worked in Scotland, but also, that we [don’t] – and we’ve been very careful to make sure that we don’t – repeat any of those mistakes.”

Graham’s role has changed recently, but for the past two years, he has been responsible for strategy and innovation for Police Scotland, including the digitally enabled policing programme and the Policing 2026 transformation strategy. 

Much of that is just beginning to come to fruition, with a new national IT system now in place to replace the different local systems of the historic forces, the launch of mobile policing imminent and work underway to explore new ways of engaging digitally with the public. 

"The research and engagement that we’re doing so far shows that people have got a huge appetite to be able to contact us, and lots of different demographics and populations as well, through social media and through text"

Around 10,000 officers will be issued soon with Samsung Galaxy Note 9s, allowing them to work remotely without having to go back to base to type up notes or search through multiple systems for information.

“We’ve road-tested different options from tablets to phones to this, which is colloquially known in the industry as a ‘phablet’, because it’s a mix between a phone and a tablet,” Graham says, showing his own Galaxy Note 8 device, “and this is what the consensus from officers was that they wanted to work with. 

“And that’s really important for us, that this is responding to officers’ needs about what’s going to work for them operationally in all the situations and contexts that you find yourself in as a police officer, so it’s not been sprung upon people.”

The ‘phablets’ will be far more efficient than paper and pen, giving access to the internet, work email, phone, texts and apps, but also, on a partitioned part of the device, all of the secure systems for recording crime, the command and control system for despatching officers to incidents, the force’s intelligence system and other operational systems, the first stage of which has already gone live. 

The aim is to allow officers to focus more on policing and free up more time for other priorities such as prevention. 

“This is how we’re going to maintain officers being visible in communities,” says Graham. “They’re going to spend more time policing and less time putting in information on multiple different systems. They’re not going to have to return to police stations or other buildings to input that, waiting in queues to get onto a PC. 

“The future notion as an organisation is we won’t need any physically located computers, because everything will be able to be done from the mobile device. And for different roles there might be different devices: if you’re a roads policing officer in a car, you might need a bigger device that’s fixed into your vehicle, etc. But the benefits that would come from that, we’ve learned from elsewhere, and the officers are really excited about getting here, are huge.”

Lessons learned
However, slow and gradual is the order of the day, with a key lesson learned from the past, including the failure of the i6 project, being not to try and do everything at once or through one big-bang system.

Graham says: “One of the lessons that we learnt from some of the failures of the past was that we need to do this in a modular way, and we need to be far more agile about how we learn, and are flexible as we go through designing a suite of applications which will all link in with each other, but which we need to avoid trying to launch all at once.

“This has already been ongoing for 18 months under my leadership and the first stages of that, the national missing persons module, have rolled out already, and that’s happening across the whole of the country. 

“The next stage that will come is the national road crash module, which is about collecting information about road collisions, and then crime recording, custody, and all the other intelligence, how we gather evidence, these are all applications, all of which will be fed from the same database, so if you’re putting on a person’s details, an address, a vehicle, it all links together into the one place and the application is the front end that will come to the officer through the mobile device.

“So, I think [the suggestion that] we’re on the cusp of a transformation with technologies is absolutely accurate, and we’re just going to work our way through that in a really logical, mature, risk-based approach to make sure that each part of it works as it’s going to, and that’s what’s happened so far.”

The new national systems will also allow for better use of data, but isn’t there a risk of putting all this trust in one device? Is this not a single point of failure, with the possibility of it breaking, getting lost and of security breaches, not to mention the well-known connectivity issues in parts of rural Scotland? Pen and paper cannot break, after all.

“Well, you say that, but pen and paper is far from infallible, and in terms of security, pen and paper’s not particularly good,” says Graham.

Security has been built in to the new systems. None of the information gets stored on the mobile device itself, all of it gets transferred to the server, and if a device gets lost or stolen, it can be disabled remotely and there will be no information on it that can be recovered. In terms of data protection, that is built in to the new systems in a way that could not be done with the legacy systems, which were designed 10 to 20 years’ ago. 

The coverage issue has also been considered and will not be a “single point of failure in terms of communication”, Graham says, because officers will have the device, which they can use for phone or text or email, but will also keep their airwave radios – although the UK-wide Emergency Services Communication Programme is under way to replace airwave with mobile phone-based communication on a distinct frequency for all three emergency services. 

Police Scotland is also looking at technology for rural areas where a mobile phone transmitter is placed in police cars, boosting connectivity within a 100-metre range of the car, but even when out of range of a mast, the new system is designed to work around it.

Graham explains: “We’re really appreciative of the fact that there are still relatively large areas of Scotland where you’re not going to get a mobile phone signal, even at its best. All the information that you can put onto the device will be stored on it and as soon as you come back into a signal, it will be automatically downloaded onto the systems. So, in effect, you would be resorting to what would be the equivalent of a notebook and a pen for that time, but a more secure one, and as soon as you drive up the road to where you kick in to the signal, [it will download].”

Public services
While all this is designed to make policing more efficient and free up officers’ time, another strand of the work will be opening up further possibilities for different forms of digital interaction with the public. This will include allowing more public input online, for example, to submit digital evidence and report crime, as well as giving better information about what is happening in relation to the crime or incident that they reported.

Graham explains: “The key elements of it would be a greater offering of web services, because at the moment most of the utility of our web services and social media is about pushing information out to people and that’s great, it has a purpose, but there isn’t a huge opportunity for people to input information to us. 

“The early stages of the research has found that a lot of people would be really keen to access some form of crime reporting and recording for lower level crimes through an online portal, digital means. Great. We can do that on the back of what we’re doing with national systems.”

"The future notion as an organisation is we won’t need any physically located computers, because everything will be able to be done from the mobile device. And for different roles there might be different devices."

But more surprisingly, public engagement has shown there’s a desire to be able to report even serious crimes and emergencies through digital channels. 

Graham says: “The research and engagement that we’re doing so far shows that people have got a huge appetite to be able to contact us, and lots of different demographics and populations as well, through social media and through text, and we’ve now seen, because again, we’re not necessarily at the cutting edge of this being used, even in public services, we’ve seen where it’s been used really successfully, and we’ve probably seen some of the pitfalls of doing it, particularly in an emergency service. 

“But it’s also disabused us of some notions that initially some people would say, if you’re in an emergency, people need to phone 999 and surely you should never offer them any other channel. And I think, although people in the police might have identified with that, actually we’ve seen a lot of circumstances where victims of crime have said, ‘It’s far easier for me to text if I am a vulnerable victim in a domestic abuse situation. It’s very difficult for me to pick up the phone and ring 999, but it’s actually easier for me to text or contact a number I know somebody’s sitting on the other end of through some kind of typing’. 

“We’ve seen British Transport Police introduce a very successful text reporting line, and because that’s got a footprint in Scotland, that’s of huge relevance for us as well. So, there’s loads of stuff in there. I’d like to get into all of that as well.”  

About the author

Jenni Davidson is a journalist at PublicTechnology sister publication Holyrood, where this story first appeared. She tweets as @HolyroodJenni.

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