Data challenges in law enforcement

The process of identifying, apprehending, and prosecuting criminals is hard enough without dealing with roach motels of data—individual systems, applications, and data sources where data goes in but you can’t get it out. Law enforcement professionals shouldn’t have to jump through so many hoops.

I’ve been working with organizations and individuals in law enforcement (as well as national and homeland security and other agencies involved in catching bad guys) since shortly after 9-11, and I’ve never once had someone tell me how much they love their Records Management System (RMS) (or most any other technology product their organization has purchased). Instead, I’ve heard—and seen—one example after another of how hard it is just to track down the information you need (since it’s usually in multiple systems that are difficult to search), let alone quickly combine it in a useful way to get the insights you need.

Criminal investigators and analysts need quicker and more accurate searching and querying across data sources (RMS, Computer Aided Dispatch [CAD], gang or other intelligence databases, case files, Field Interview cards, link charts, emails, Suspicious Activity Reports [SARs], FBI databases like ViCAP and NCIC, homeland security bulletins, Internet/open source-Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, Google, etc.) to identify leads, support investigative and intelligence activities, identify hot spots of activity, find patterns and trends across criminal incidents, etc. As part of this, it’s important to be able to look at information geospatially and temporally, and find links and associations across all your data.

You need access to all your data across silos, including all the good stuff that’s in the text/report narrative. Missing data can mean the difference between catching the bad guy or not. And, you need real-time processing on all your information; there’s no time to wait for IT to write a report to get data out of your RMS, or utilize pre-canned reports that give you information that might be a month old, or remember that there was some email you got a month ago with a notice to look out for the same type of suspicious activity you’re observing right now. You need to be able to immediately incorporate and utilize new information to help catch the bad guys faster. And, you need a way to share information securely with other departments or agencies, while ensuring civil liberties and privacy are protected.

So, is this even possible? One of the things I’ve often seen is a mismatch between what a software vendor says they will provide, and what the customers think they are getting. Don’t get me wrong, I believe most vendors are honest, but the English language often leaves vast grey areas ripe for misinterpretation. I recommend that you press your vendors for specific details on capabilities. Ideally they will be able to show you versus just tell you, to ensure everyone’s on the same page regarding what will be delivered.

In particular, 12 things you should ask about when evaluating technology are:

  1. How is security handled? You need to ensure only authorized people (with the need to know and right to know) get access. Can data be made safely available to others outside your department and limited just to the specific data that those other organizations or individuals should be seeing? What about auditing who is reading or modifying data?

  2. What is the time to deploy the system? Can it receive and transmit data in common formats like NIEM out of the box, or is there a lengthy data modeling and/or ETL and/or “transformation” development stage involved?

  3. How easy or hard is it to add new data sources, change the search/query capability, etc.? Does the vendor provide development tools so you can do this yourself, or do you need to hire specialized consultants? How long does an average development project take? Weeks, or months or even years?

  4. How good are the geospatial capabilities? Can you easily associate information with a location, and search for information by location, proximity, etc.? Can you visualize the information in your GIS tool of choice (ESRI, Google, etc.)?

  5. How good is the search and query capability? Can you easily explore, filter, and drill down your information in an ad hoc way? For unstructured information (text, video, audio, etc.), is it easy to incorporate metadata to aid in searching? Can you do full-text searching, and do the results come back just as a list of links, or with actual information in the results pane?

  6. How smoothly do the vendor’s tools work with other applications that you use, e.g. Microsoft Office or link analysis software? What is the process for getting information out of their system into these other tools, and can you incorporate finished reports back into the system?

  7. What resources (personnel and costs) does the system take to run/maintain on an ongoing basis? Do you need a full-time DBA to support it? Are license and support fees per user? Does it need specialized hardware to run? As your data volume or user volume grows, what will the impact be in terms of future resources/costs?

  8. What kind of support is offered? What kind of downtime do current customers experience? Are there backup and recovery features? For systems where you will be updating information, what is the risk of data loss in the underlying database? What types of customers do they currently have, and what types of applications are running on this technology? Are they mission-critical?

  9. Alerting capabilities. Do you have to re-run your searches every day to see if new information is available, or can you just save your search and have it run automatically and “push” the information to your e-mail or phone?

  10. Can you (with appropriate permissions) update the information, for example to add notes or “tag” something, or are you only getting a “read-only” view? How long does it take for any updates to be made available to other authorized users when they are searching for information?

  11. If you are dealing with information in multiple languages, does the vendor’s technology support search in these languages?

  12. Can information be made available on a variety of devices (PC, laptop, mobile, etc.)? How much work is involved to support this?

    Doing your due diligence on a vendor is a critical step in getting the functionality you need. Ask each of the vendors you’re evaluating the same questions so that you can accurately compare products, and push for more details if you are not absolutely certain you know what they are saying. Any good vendor will be happy to work with you on this important process.