When the 2013 Boston Marathon turned to tragedy, police turned to spectators for help.
After two bombs exploded on Boylston Street near the finish line, the gathering of evidence commenced. Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis issued a public plea to the 500,000 marathon spectators to send in any video or photos they might have taken during the day to help the investigation.
It was a smart move.
3 billion camera-equipped cellphones in circulation around the world, we are awash in visual information. Nearly everyone has a phone in their pocket, and especially at a marathon or other large pubic event, where photos and videos are being taken every moment, the aggregate data can weave together the day’s events in retrospect.
In the case of Boston, there was a good chance spectators had snapped photos or video that offered clues to who was responsible for the explosions. The call for evidence brought in more than 13,500 photos and videos, which crashed the FBI servers set up to receive them.
That so many citizens were willing to help out shouldn’t be surprising. In fact, according to a Nielsen survey recently conducted by NICE, 95 percent of Americans polled said they’d be willing to share pictures, videos, tips, or other evidence if they witnessed a crime or serious incident, if they were given an easy means to do so.
What is surprising, however, is that despite the vast majority of citizens willing to share evidence with law enforcement, too many police departments don’t provide an easy way for citizens to submit photos, video or tips. They don’t have the systems or the infrastructure to readily accept this evidence, for everyday investigations and especially for large-scale events of the magnitude of the Boston Marathon bombing.
With crowdsourced evidence offering some of the best leads in investigations and with a population overwhelmingly willing to provide it when necessary, it’s time for police departments to upgrade their tools.
Why crowdsourced evidence is so compelling – and so difficult to collect
Lenny DePaul, retired former chief inspector of the U.S. Marshals service, has said that
people on the ground are what make or break cases, even with the cameras outside of businesses and other establishments.
In the Boston case, there was ample CCTV footage from local businesses, but the crowdsourced imagery and video allowed law enforcement to “construct a wider mosaic of imagery” to get a holistic sense of what happened when and who might be involved.
While the role of citizens was headline news in the case of the Boston bombing, it was hardly the first example. When
riots broke out in Vancouver after the Canucks lost the 2011 Stanley Cup final, investigators put out a call for information and received 5,000 hours of video from the public. Authorities pored over the footage and identified 15,000 criminal acts, leading to more than 1,000 charges against 351 people.
The actual mechanics of collecting that evidence, however, leaves something to be desired.
In the aftermath of the Boston bombing, authorities set up a tip line and an email address for photos and videos. The process of uploading large files from a phone to email is not only cumbersome but can potentially strip timestamps and GPS data, leaving helpful metadata out of the submission. Not to mention that the server quickly crashed under the weight of so many files.
Which brings me to a broader point – most departments are hungry for crowdsourced data, but don’t have the storage capacity to handle an expectedly high number of submissions. Many end up scrambling to tack on more storage. Not having the proper set up to capture crowdsourced data also sets investigators up for delays in processing and analyzing it.
In recent years, some new apps have become available for crowdsourcing. On the surface, they seem to make the process easier, but they have some serious short-comings. Some of these apps are designed specifically for large-scale emergencies, making them less useful for other types of everyday investigative needs where crowdsourced evidence would be equally important. In addition, some require law enforcement to set up a new link and web page for each case, and work with an outside party to do so, slowing down the process of collecting evidence and getting it into the hands of detectives.
Is CCTV footage any easier to collect?
In addition to video and photos captured on bystanders’ phones, CCTV has long been an important form of crowdsourced evidence. It played a role in identifying the perpetrators who carried out the London Underground bombing in 2005, as well as in picking out criminals from 200,000 hours of CCTV footage taped during the 2011 London riots.
It also helped identify the Boston bombing suspects. In that case, the crime scene stretched over 20 square blocks – one of the most complex crime scenes in Boston history. Luckily that area was rife with storefronts and surveillance cameras that allowed authorities to spot the suspects.
From hundreds of hours of footage, aided by an eyewitness account, authorities were able to pinpoint the two individuals suspected of carrying out the attacks and follow their movements before and after the explosion.
But the sheer volume of the footage is not the only challenge facing investigators.
Collecting the footage often requires them to physically drive to the crime scene and walk door to door, canvasing the area to look for cameras. If they find one, they then talk to store owners and physically download a copy of the footage to bring back to the station. In many cases, CCTV video requires a proprietary player, meaning a video specialist will have to convert the footage so it’s playable on an office computer.
While the evidence is valuable, collecting it eats up hours of investigators’ time.
A better way to crowdsource digital evidence
In order to collect and use this valuable evidence to its fullest potential, police departments must embrace
new technologies and practices. They should look for platforms that offer the following:
A secure portal for submitting video, photos, and tips. Look for a solution that not only allows citizens to securely submit photos and video captured on their smartphones, but also enables businesses to register their CCTV cameras, so detectives can map out where footage is available in relation to a crime scene, and have contact information for camera owners on hand and readily accessible when needed. A secure web portal saves time on the front end as well because you don’t have to waste time setting up web pages and other links to collect video and photo from private citizens. Also, officers don’t have to go door to door seeking out footage in the wake of a crime. Knowing where the cameras are and who owns them, an investigator can send out an electronic request to have the video footage uploaded to the secure portal.
A secure cloud platform. Your servers won’t crash with the scalability of the cloud, which can grow with the volume of photos and videos received. There are no hardware or resource costs to set anything up, and it can scale to your police department’s investigative workloads and evidence storage requirements. Look for solutions built using the
Microsoft Azure Government cloud platform that are CJIS compliant.
Transcoding capability. In addition to mapping out where cameras are, investigators should be able to easily convert the many proprietary formats so the video is viewable on any device.
Some tools allow them to do so without having a video specialist do all the conversions – transcoding is done automatically and doesn’t impact the integrity of the original file.
Visualization tools. Once all the evidence is collected, investigators can better grasp a series of events by visualizing information on a timeline, seeing the events from multiple angles using, for example, video gathered from ATMs, private CCTV cameras, and more, merged together into a timeline so it can be played back in chronological sequence. Body-worn camera video, in-car video, and 911 recordings can also be added to the timeline view,
allowing investigators to pull a case together more quickly.
In conclusion, crowdsourcing evidence from citizens and businesses offers investigators a wealth of information to build their cases. Citizens are overwhelmingly willing to help out – 95 percent said they’d share video or photos if it was convenient to do so – and businesses are too.
But that’s the key point – it has to be easy, first for citizens and businesses to share crowdsourced evidence, and secondly, for investigators to analyze the vast information and put it into proper context. The good news is, that by taking advantage of
new technology available today, police departments can do both.
This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Poll on behalf of
NICE from June 21-23, 2016 among 2,114 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables, please contact Linda Haelsen at