Now in the hands of about 100 law enforcement agencies across the country, the fourth iteration of the MyPD app aims to attract more users with new features, ease of use and an assurance of privacy.
Now that most people have smartphones, police departments across the country have taken to mobile apps that send notifications to, and receive tips from, citizens. But public skepticism about what app companies do with data, combined with old designs, has made these apps a tough sell for some people, so a newly revamped app called MyPD means to answer their concerns.
Launched in 2011 as the flagship product of a small company in Peabody, Mass., called WiredBlue, MyPD is on its fourth iteration. It's a free download for citizens, and a subscription for back-end software for law enforcement agencies.
WiredBlue founder Peter Olson, a former police detective who sits on the communications and technology committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, told Government Technology the upgrade is part functional, part aesthetic. New features include an optional newsfeed of local and national crime and safety information, optional Web browser notifications from the local police department, and a more polished and user-friendly interface.
“If you look at some of the departments that have launched apps, they launched great apps seven years ago, and they still look the same. It’s just like a website — you need to update it,” Olson said. “We’re trying to give the citizen and user a really easy way to get alerts, send in tips, do things fast, but with a design and layout they expect.”
Olson said there are many apps in the market acting as intermediaries between citizens and law enforcement, but most of them are customized per department and far more expensive. He said MyPD is being used by about 100 agencies nationwide, and its top competitor is probably social media, although that’s also where he drew a critical distinction regarding privacy.
He pointed out that police agencies often get tips via Facebook messages from people asking not to be identified, but those are still subject to public records requests, so there’s no guarantee. Olson stressed that MyPD doesn’t require users to create a profile or share any personal information, and he hoped this would convince people it’s safe to use, and by extension lead to more tips.
“I’ve seen departments make their own web forms, and they’ll write the words ‘this is anonymous’ on it. My guess is, looking at it, it’s not technically anonymous,” he said. “It might be confidential, but you’re still capturing that person’s IP address and their browser, and a lot of things.”
Peabody Deputy Police Chief Martin Cohan, whose department has been using MyPD for close to a decade, attested to the fact that citizens are much more willing to share information if they can do so electronically and anonymously. He said Peabody Police Department gets notifications daily, mostly about minor problems like road hazards and potholes, but also including tips that resulted in successful narcotics investigations.
“A lot of people would like to talk to the police, but they don’t want to be recorded, nor do they want to be identifiable,” Cohan said. “The anonymity of it results in quite a few things being brought to our attention that probably would not have been [otherwise].”
Cohan also highlighted push notifications as a key feature of the new upgrade, because it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to retain a bulk phone call service to reach an entire town.
“If there’s a storm predicted for tomorrow, they may call for a parking ban at midnight, and we need to get the message out to people that they need to get their cars off the street,” he said. “It’s new in this version, but we’ve been doing it (via) a free service … called Nixle, but that has been bought out, and the total free package has been diminished.”
Also in Massachusetts, Sgt. George Demos of Watertown Police Department said MyPD has been a great two-way communication tool for at least two reasons: It prevents non-emergency notifications from tying up phone lines, and it doesn’t require people to have social media accounts.
“When people have nuisance calls … we’ve been finding people have been using the app, as opposed to bothering our dispatchers, with neighbors blowing leaves on their yard, or barking dogs, or minor complaints that we don’t have to worry about flooding our intake lines,” he said. “We like it. It’s been a benefit for us.”