Chicago Hacks its Way to Mobile-Friendly Public Safety Apps

At Chicago's Safer Communities hackathon, developers were tasked with making public safety apps more accessible via mobile devices.

by Sean Thornton, Data-Smart City Solutions / June 7, 2013

This story was originally published by Data Smart Solutions.

Smartphones and mobile devices are changing how we interact with government bodies that keep us safe. While community policing in Chicago is nothing new, the ability for citizens to remotely interact with the people who help keep their communities safe certainly is. This means that city residents can engage in local public safety measures with arguably more ease than ever before.      

This May, Chicago’s community policing program, Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS), partnered with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) to provide an opportunity for civic-minded programmers to enhance such efforts in Chicago. The “Safer Communities Hackathon,” hosted by Google at the company’s Chicago offices, was convened to expand the technological arm of CAPS.

By bringing CAPS services to mobile devices, Chicago looks to start a new era for its long-running community policing initiative.

A Brief History: CAPS and Community Policing in Chicago

CAPS began in 1993 as a way for the city’s police force to build partnerships with residents. At neighborhood CAPS meetings, officers and local residents identify community concerns, quality of life concerns and overall public safety concerns and collaboratively discuss ways to address them.  The program initially started as a pilot in five Chicago police districts, then expanded citywide in 1994 due to its success. CAPS quickly became a national model for enhancing community interaction with police departments.   

In January 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a restructuring of the program’s operations.  Rather than continuing to have CAPS managed from CPD’s downtown headquarters, Emanuel moved to decentralize CAPS so that all operations are handled at the community level. Each Chicago police district now has a team to administer the program locally, which includes a CAPS Sergeant, two police officers, a community organizer, and a youth services provider.

Furthermore, the CAPS restructuring calls for increased use of technology in community policing.

“Commanders will be accountable for creating successful [local CAPS] programs, but we are also providing new tools and technologies to engage Chicagoans as well as gauge the performance of each program,” Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said during the announcement. 

CLEARpath and the Safer Communities Hackathon

CAPS’ most prominent tech tool is the CLEARpath application, first launched in 2007. CLEARpath provides the public with access to crime data, as well as schedules for CAPS meetings. Its other services include online crime reporting, local police beat news and information, and CLEARmap, a map-based web application that allows users to do searches for criminal activity by police beat, community, or other distinctions.

In the age of smartphones, CLEARpath is destined to play a larger role in CAPS’ interactions with the public. However, to fully ensure CLEARpath’s value, Chicagoans need to be able to recognize and use the application more easily.   

The internet’s migration from stationary desktops to portable devices has huge implications for community policing programs. Increased internet access means more people can instantly report community concerns online. With more concerns reported in real-time, officials can improve response times to these concerns—creating a positive feedback loop that can also serve to increase involvement in programs like CAPS.

This is where the Safer Communities Hackathon’s main idea comes into focus. At the event, civic programmers were specifically challenged to make CLEARpath’s services more accessible on mobile phones and devices. 

Prior to the Hackathon, CAPS and the CPD released the CLEARpath Application Programming Interface (API) to fuel mobile app development. Armed with new data, the civic programmers who spent their Saturday hacking away at Google’s offices produced many new and innovative products.   

Taking first place was “CAPStagram,” an app that lets residents upload a picture to accompany their reported community concern. In second place, “CAPS by Text” lets residents submit concerns via text message.  By focusing on text messaging, “CAPS by Text” functions on basic phones as well as smartphones, ensuring that those without smartphones are not left out. Many developers at the event actively focused on text-based apps for this reason.  

Other tops apps were “CAPS Alerts,” which notifies users when crimes are reported nearby, and “CAPSure,” which helps users gather information about CAPS meetings. Not all apps were public-facing, either; some apps were developed to benefit CAPS operations. One in particular helps CAPS officers recruit and manage volunteers for CAPS-hosted events.

These “CAPS apps” are significant for multiple reasons. For one, they capture that aforementioned potential that mobile internet has to increase online reporting and involvement in CAPS programs.  They also provide new avenues of communication with CAPS and the police not just for individual residents, but for local businesses, community organizers, neighborhood organizations, and other institutions.  

Moreover, these products’ cost-effectiveness cannot be overstated at a time when public budgets are tight. Although big changes are coming to CAPS, the program’s restructuring is being done without increases to its budget. By crowdsourcing CLEARpath’s API to Chicago’s tech community, the City is efficiently finding ways to make new forms of communication possible.

This means that—in the age of mobile internet—innovative programs on our smartphones really can help cities accomplish more with less.   
Photo from Shutterstock.