Police crowdsource evidence with app


An annual spring party in a Southern California beach town devolved into a riot last month when revelers turned violent, rocking cars, smashing windows and throwing rocks. Dozens were injured and about 50 people ended up in the hospital, including several police officers.

Today, as authorities seek help with the investigation in Isla Vista, they are employing a new online and mobile app that designers say was created specifically for this type of situation.

“When the public really wants to catch these bad guys as badly as we do, this is the mechanism,” said Los Angeles Sheriff’s Cmdr. Scott Edson, who helped conceptualize the system in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. “They can help us by sending us pictures and video.”

The innovation, called the Large Emergency Event Digital Information Repository (LEEDIR), pairs an app with cloud storage to help police use smartphones as tools to gather evidence.

Proponents say the crowdsourcing system gives authorities a secure, central repository for the countless electronic tips that can come in during a crisis. And since it uses remote database servers that police access online, floods of data won’t cause system crashes or be expensive to store. Most agencies, Edson said, “don’t have lots of bandwidth lying around.”

Privacy advocates criticize the app as overly broad, saying it subjects innocent people to police scrutiny and probably won’t produce much good evidence.

“There’s a reason that we pay professionals to work in police departments,” said Nate Cardozo, a civil liberties attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “And there’s a reason we don’t crowdsource photo lineups and the like — crowds aren’t good at it.”

Edson says he took note during the aftermath of the Boston attacks last year when authorities were inundated with videos and photos from people at the scene of the blasts. He figured a new tool could help streamline digital evidence-gathering. “It seemed like the perfect opportunity to go to the private sector,” he said.

Edson connected with Culver City, California-based tech startup CitizenGlobal Inc. and Amazon Web Services to design the system as a public-private partnership offered free to authorities and members of the public.

“With tens of millions of smartphones in use in the U.S., it’s a virtual certainty that citizens will be taking videos and photos at any terrorist attack, large-scale emergency or natural disaster,” CitizenGlobal co-CEO George D. Crowley Jr. said when the system was announced in November.

He said “real-time access to such content has, too often, been a matter of luck or chance” and this system will improve that process.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office became the first agency to try out the technology after the Isla Vista violence, though results have been mixed. Spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said the system has been easy to navigate. But Hoover said they have received only a handful of submissions because it is so new.

CitizenGlobal officials predict use will grow. The company designs crowdsourcing platforms for police, cities and schools, using Amazon Web Services as its back end, and LEEDIR helps showcase their work. Already, officials say, police agencies around the country have shown interest in embracing technology.

Police departments in Philadelphia and Sacramento, California, encourage property owners to register security cameras for official use. Authorities in Houston and Los Angeles have sought access to traffic camera footage for investigations. And in suburban Atlanta, Marietta police use a tailored version of the crowdsourcing app to catch hit-and-run drivers and want to expand their system to include pothole reports, CitizenGlobal co-CEO Nick Namikas said.

“The paradigm for eyewitnesses has traditionally been ‘See something; say something,’ ” Namikas said. “So now the paradigm is shifting to ‘See something; send us something.’ “

Developers acknowledge the possibility that content could be misleading or doctored, but authorities say they would investigate any tips they receive. Submitted photos and videos would be used to corroborate other information gathered during the investigation, authorities say.