Evaluating the use of mobile data in the police

Earlier this year the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee issued reports criticising the use of mobile data in UK police forces. But research by the AIMTech Research Group at Leeds University Business School questions these findings and indicates police forces have been more successful than the reports allow

Evaluating the use of mobile data in the police

The recent reports by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee on mobile policing provide clear examples of the problems that can be faced when evaluating information technology investments. We argue that three key issues cast doubt on the validity of the conclusions of the reports: the need to fully understand the context of implementations; the need to fully understand what is and should be valued; and a clear understanding of how these should be measured.

Understand the context

In evaluating the mobile information programme by the NPIA and the use of mobile data by police forces both reports seem to indicate a limited understanding of the context. They seem to assume that mobile data use in the UK police service was driven by central government policy and by the NPIA programme and that very little occurred before the NPIA mobile information programme. The reality is rather different. 

As early as mid-1990s police services across the UK had experimented with some form of mobile data systems with a number of pioneer forces investing in pilots and proof of concept trials of a range of devices. Services also rapidly recognised the need to share experiences, knowledge and information and had formed a Mobile Information Strategy Group reporting to the ACPO Communications Committee producing ‘Infranet’, a strategy for mobile data in 2002.

This document recognised the need for a strategic approach to mobile data and saw mobile technology as an extension of existing systems (rather than focusing on devices) and clearly identified potential areas of benefit. This was followed by PITO support and investment in mobile data trials. By the early 2000s, local investment in mobile technology was significant and the investment by forces was linked to a wide set of benefits.

In 2003-04 police services across England and Wales were focusing on the potential benefits of increased visibility, productivity, response times, communication and management control. By 2003, 47% of forces in England and Wales had invested in mobile data (in some form), 13 forces identified themselves as having made a significant investment in mobile data and a further seven were running pilots.

Only four forces did not regard themselves as active in any area of mobile data. By 2006 over 10,000 devices had been implemented across the UK with a narrowing of choice of technology: 7,322 radio handsets (sending and receiving data); 6,643 mobile data terminals; 3,633 BlackBerrys; 2,550 PDAs; and 1,447 laptops.

Two forces were in the position where they expected virtually all of their front line officers to have access to some form of mobile device before the end of 2007. Indeed by 2006, approximately 75% of the UK services had active developments and applications in mobile data. While progress in some areas was slow police services across the UK were moving forward with mobile information.

The Public Accounts Committee has argued that '… the Programme has resulted in significant system-wide variation, in: the number of devices in use, (some forces have no devices, whereas others have sufficient for all officers and supporting staff); the amount of business change activity undertaken; and, the amount of additional efficiency savings made on top of the additional officer time spent out of the station. This variation has limited the amount of cash and efficiency savings resulting from the £71m invested'.

The reality seems to be that the variation was in the policing system before the implementation of the Mobile Information Programme. The variation can be linked to different strategic objectives, different business needs, different legacy systems, different technological capabilities and hence different suppliers. They also had different approaches to the information made available and the manner of interaction with in house and national systems.

We would argue that by 2008 many of the key forces weren’t naive consumers of an NPIA policy, but instead had identified where they saw potential benefits and challenges that mobile data offered. Significantly they had also identified and cemented strategic relationships with sets of suppliers and had moved some way towards building a mobile information infrastructure.

Equally, before the Home Office investment police service CIOs and senior officers had indicated that the diverse nature of Forces and their legacy systems would mean that a one–size-fits-all technological solution wouldn’t work. 

Rather than seeing diversity as a negative issue we would argue that the very diversity in implementations at this stage was a positive factor which drove the competitive market, rapid innovation and benefited both the police services and technology developers.

The two reports point to the lack of uptake in mobile data in some forces as a failure. However, we would argue that uptake was much higher than the reports indicate (as discussed above). Not investing, however, should not be seen as a failure, indeed, for many forces this was a sensible strategic decision. Mobile data for many forces was seen as an extension of the existing infrastructure and the pilots and proof of concepts that they had implemented prior to 2008 had highlighted to them the problems they faced with allowing further wireless access to the system.

As one CIO reported to us after implementing a proof of concept in his force: '…I could never support a full roll out on our current infrastructure. Some of this is creaking under the load at the moment and if I raise expectations by trialling mobile kit  I’d either have to back off and effectively say to officers "nice isn’t it; but you can’t have it", or spend a lot of money we haven’t got.'

Early mobile data implementation in forces had also highlighted the need for expensive and time consuming change in work practices and business processes to successfully reap the higher level benefits of the use of the technology. Significant cultural change was also needed to combat early user resistance and training to ensure that officers made best use of the technology. The cost of this was seen as very significant, far outstripping the cost of the devices and a resource which would have to be locally rather than centrally provided.  

The Public Accounts Committee concluded that: 'Only one in five forces has used the technology effectively to improve their operational processes'. We do not recognise this figure. Many of the leading forces that we visited invested heavily in business process change aligned to the deployment of mobile data. Equally the deployment of technology in many forces led to the development of new work practices and processes which were rapidly absorbed into routine activity.

For example, while many officers and police services saw the benefit of using basic applications (such as email or a web browser) for communication within the force, across the criminal justice system or with members of the community, this was limited in many forces by limited access to computing devices. Provision of low cost mobile devices either from force funds or via the Mobile Information Programme allowed wider access to these basic services and this form of mobile data is now essential to modern policing.

In terms of overt business process change or re-engineering many forces were taking a sensible approach of focusing on improvement of operational process and systems or ‘modernisation’ before considering the implementation of mobile services.

These forces recognised that the total cost of ownership was a more significant issue than the cost of devices and had a strategic vision for policing in which mobile data was one element of the technology mix which allowed them to achieve this vision. Indeed, a degree of caution for some forces seems a sensible and pragmatic response. 

Know what you value

The focus of both reports seems to be firmly on cashable savings and indeed points to the NPIA Mobile Information programme objectives: to increase efficiency and effectiveness, and to reduce bureaucracy. While cost reduction may have been one of the overt objectives of the programme it is clear that the primary focus was on increasing visibility of police officers on the street, which will not realise any cashable savings. Individual forces had already identified benefit areas which were, for them, of greater significance than cash savings.

The picture we have seen build up over time related to benefits identification, in fact, has been quite a positive one. Broadly, benefits have been achieved in back-office processes, in the service provided to those who come into contact with the police, and for the officers who make use of the technologies in their daily lives and work.

The focus of the forces has not necessarily been solely on increasing productivity and in many cases greater emphasis has been placed on quality of service. In one force we visited, for example, while it was clear that the technology had reduced the time the officers needed to be in the station this was valued by both senior officers and by the rank and file, not only because it made them more productive, but also because it allowed officers to be more visible and have better contact with their communities.

In another service we visited a neighbourhood officer noted that the technology supported him in engaging with the community. 'If we have a bit more time out of the station then we have a bit more time to talk to people. Talking to people is a lot of this job anyway, it’s what we do, but I suppose that there is a tendency to talk to the same people. They’re the ones who you see either because they’re the nuisance kids or they’re the shopkeepers. They’re the ones you come into contact with and a bit more time maybe just means the ability to say good morning to somebody in passing and at least they’ve seen you, they perhaps notice that we are there.'

The use of mobile technology also allowed better information at the point of use allowing officers to make more informed decisions and improve productivity. Officers could access systems and undertake checks on individuals, crimes and vehicles which would not have been undertaken if access was via the radio system or in-station resources.

An example of this was provided by an officer who noted: 'I make a practice now of checking those people ejected from the football stadium. We used to just take a name and address, take it on trust, but the sort of people who cause trouble at a football match are probably the sort of people who cause trouble in other places too. It’s just that before [access to mobile data] the radio would have been busy and so you wouldn’t have done it.'

We also noted improved data collection and management. The quality of the data gathered was higher and was available for analysis and use almost instantaneously by other teams within the force; it also eliminated data re-entry and delays in processing within key systems.

Remote access to systems also allowed officers significantly increased quality and quantity of information. While this is difficult to quantify, the benefits of the force being able to push out information (such as colour picture of a child missing from home) or of the officers being able to pull information from systems or communicate via e-mail, are self-evident.

A striking example of this is the influence of the technology on improved safety for officers as a result of better intelligence and information. We noted numerous examples of situations where the technology allowed officers to access information and more informed decisions.

One female officer noted: “Last week I went to a job and at the address there was a sex offender who preyed on adult females. I was single crewed and nobody told me this before I went in. I only knew because I looked and checked on my PDA before I went in.”

We also noted improved ability to identify individuals leading to significant time savings and improvement in the image of police officers and the police as a group, as a result of the ability to access and deliver information for the people they come into contact with.

'Sometimes when you deal with people they’re upset and it doesn’t inspire confidence if you have to say that you’ll go away and find things out. They wonder if you will. With this you can move things on and you can tell them. ‘I’ve done this’, rather than "I will do this",' said one officer.

Police forces are very different in their information technology landscape, in their business processes and in the communities they serve. This difference means that police forces have selected and used quite different technologies to support their officers and fulfil their business needs. Making use of these quite diverse technologies they have been able to provide tailored solutions to their individual policing situations and priorities and have been able to deliver a range of benefits across a number of different constituencies. 

Understand how it should be measured

We are concerned that the Committee placed undue emphasis on the reliability of the figures provided by the National Audit Office. The Committee stated that: “During our hearing the Department claimed that the Programme would deliver around £500m cashable savings.[30] Subsequently the Department provided a note to say that it actually estimated £125m cashable savings; arising from process efficiencies in areas such as crime recording and issuing fixed penalty notices.[31] However, the 32 forces who responded to the National Audit Office survey only reported total cashable savings of around £600,000 (annually) from 2011-12.'

The National Audit Office’s Survey Data was incomplete with the financial data being provided to them by the forces in different formats and some of the data not being provided in a usable form. Extrapolation from an incomplete sample of forces where each force varies so considerably in size is deeply problematic. Given the problems with the efficacy of the data the quotation of the £600,000 saving seems problematic. 

We would also question the duration of time expected for the cashable savings to be calculated. The generalisability of a calculation of cashable savings for 2011-12 from a programme that calculated its benefits realisation over a ten year investment cycle (by March 2008) is questionable. In our experience cashable benefits realisation does not occur in a linear manner.

In terms of where the benefits were measured most of the focus of the Audit Office report seems to be on ‘frontline’ officers. Measurement of benefit just in terms of activity by the users may miss secondary and tertiary effects of mobile technology and what we refer to as the ‘ripple effect’, whereby the introduction of technology leads to several intended and unintended consequence in other areas of the police work.

Thus, for example, while it may take a front-line officer longer to input data into a PDA the quality of the data input is significantly increased in terms of accuracy, currency and format of the data collected. The benefit may, therefore, be noted not in the frontline but in increased capability elsewhere and reduction of costs in, for example, back office information processing.

The second point is that while the NPIA and Government placed some emphasis on cashable savings for many Police Forces these were not a key priority. In some forces increases in productivity or reduction in cost were not seen as cashable (leading directly to reduction of frontline staff) but instead were translated into improved service quality.

Equally, as discussed above, forces saw benefits from the mobile data in terms of attitude (image of the Force, value placed on staff), officer safety (less injuries, less dangerous situations, better knowledge of risks) and new capabilities (such as checks when they would not have been done or the sharing of images). 

The third point is that in contrast with the National Audit Office Report in our work with forces we have seen significant investment by police services in quantitative measurement of business value. These range from the utilisation of existing force key performance indicators or by utilising the mobile technology to monitor change in officer behaviour (using, for example, in car or person based GPS). The forces, however, have measured processes and work activity that they value rather than those imposed from central government.

The fourth point that we wish to raise is that while the number of devices seems to have been focused on as a key performance indicator (with the target of getting a further 30,000 devices out) for many forces this was irrelevant. As one CIO noted:

'It’s not that the PDA itself can reduce bureaucracy. Yes, if the PDA does change things, if the systems are right, it will reduce bureaucracy; but if you’re just making a mobile version of the systems in place then that will not.'

The final issue is the difficulty attached to the problem of untangling the technology from process change. When you change the process and gain efficiency changes and this is enabled by the use of technology where do you attribute the benefit: to the technology or to the change in process?

In some forces this was overcome by focusing on the shift in the process change (for example, modernisation) against the force key performance indicators rather than attributing a change in performance directly to the mobile data terminal.

In many of the leading innovators mobile data has now been embedded into routine activity. They have deployed the technology and have seen considerable benefits. While many of them may find it difficult to articulate the benefit in terms of cashable savings they could not now function as efficiently without the technology.

Indeed, mobile technology is an indispensable element of modern day policing and provides a platform for new generations of applications such as social media. Rather than evaluating the influence of the NPIA Mobile Information Programme against a limited set of criteria, it may be more effective to establish how the programme influenced the uptake and direction of mobile data. Our research points to the programme supporting forces to attain significant benefits; encouraging innovation; and speeding up the implementation of mobile data in the UK. 

In understanding how police services use mobile data it would perhaps be more effective to talk to and observe officers using the technology, to meet with the forces to understand how and why they deployed mobile data and how they judged the success of the technology.

The benefits we have identified in this article by doing this, however, may not be the benefits that suit a particular central government perspective.

The authors are: Dr David Allen, Dr Stan Karanasios and Dr Alistair Norman from the AIMTech Research Group in Leeds University Business School, University of Leeds. (www.aimtech.org). 

This e-article is based on evidence gathered from over 30 studies undertaken in police services across the UK from 1998 onwards. These have included longitudinal qualitative studies of single forces, national surveys and comparative studies.

Data in this paper has been drawn from the following sources:

Allen, D.K., Norman, A., Wilson, T.D, Knight, C (2004) Mobile data systems in Police Forces in England and Wales Report Produced for the Police Information Technology Organisation February 2004 pp1-88

Allen, D.K., Norman, A., Wilson, T.D (2006) National Mobile Data Survey Produced for the Police Information Technology Organisation July pp1-78

Norman, A (2009) The effects of mobile technologies on the work of front-line police officers in a UK Police Force. PHD Thesis

Leeds University Qualitative data used in this report was gathered as an element of the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project An Investigation into Information Behaviour and the Use of Mobile Information Systems for Information Management in Police Forces in England and Wales, Grant No. 119261

Allen, D. K (2011) Information Behaviour and Decision Making in Time Constrained Practice: A Dual-Processing Perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (62)11, 2165-2181
Allen, D. & S. Karanasios (2011), Critical Factors and Patterns in the Innovation Process. Policing (Oxford): a journal policy and practice, 5(1): p. 87-97

Allen, D.K., Wilson, T.D., Norman, A.W.T. and Knight, C. (2008).  Information on the move: the use of mobile information systems by UK police forces. Information Research, 13(4), paper 378. (Paper presented at ISIC 2008  Villnius, Lithuania 16-19 September 2008 and published by the conference organisers in Information Research)
[Available at http://informationr.net/ir/13-4/paper378.html]

Allen, D.K. and Shoard, M. (2005). Spreading the load: mobile information and communications  technologies and their effect on information overload. Information Research, 10(2) paper 227
[Available at http://InformationR.net/ir/10-2/paper227.html]

Allen, D. K. and Wilson, T.D. (2004) Action, interaction and the role of ambiguity in the introduction of mobile information systems in a UK police force. In Lawrence, E, Pernici, B., Krogstie, J Mobile Information Systems: IFIP TC8 Working Conference on Mobile Information Systems. (pp. 14-37)  New York, NY: Springer.

We would like to thank the police services and other organisations that have supported our research. Copies of articles cited in this paper will be supplied on request from da2@lubs.leeds.ac.uk

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