Police go mobile, with preview of major update to online presence

The Prince Albert Police Service is getting ready to modernize its online presence, with a new website, a mobile app and an interactive crime map.

Police Chief Troy Cooper looked on as an IT specialist presented a sample to the Board of Police Commissioners. Cooper said the new app should be ready to roll out by the end of the year.

“The purpose of this application was to make police information more available to the public and improve communications,” he said.

“It’s modern and it’s the way people access police information now.”

The police service’s current web presence isn’t mobile friendly. That’s a big concern for Chief Cooper. He wants to reach more people, especially youth, who prefer navigating the web on their phones.

“We know that the vast majority of people don’t access internet content through a computer, they do it through their smart devices now,” he said. “The new webpage we’re working on will look better, will perform better, will be more attractive and will have more information to someone accessing it on a smart device.”

Ankil Patel, the lead programmer on the project, walked the board through the features in the mobile app, which will be available on iPhone and Android devices. He said most large police agencies are already using similar technology to reach their residents.

The app will allow users to file police reports through their phone, something that’s more cumbersome with the current website. It will provide alerts on emergency information and connect directly to the police service’s Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channel.

Patel showed the commissioners a sample of the app’s staff directory, which will help people contact the right department for their concerns. But Cooper hopes that the app will help relieve his officers of some routine tasks, as residents plug into the new “virtual police officer” feature to answer basic questions.

“People call every day about how do I get rid of a criminal record, how do I get my record checked. There are constant repetitive questions,” he said. “It helps us to refer people to this.”

Evert Botha, one of the police commissioners, suggested getting heavy mobile users to test the app before it rolls out officially. The Chief seemed favourable to the idea, saying it would be a good opportunity to get more young people involved in policing.

The new website, which Patel said is still in development, will also be mobile friendly. The sample he displayed is more visually striking than the current site, with larger photos and homepage links to virtually all relevant content.

Cooper said the old website was “flat,” and due for a change.

“It was just time, time to renew it and refresh it and to engage the community a little more,” he said. “Communicating what we have to the public is really important for us.”

Both the website and the app are expected to include an interactive crime map, allowing residents to drill down into offence data organized by city block.

Patel explained that the map will allow users to break down the data by time of day and specific offence. For instance, a search for the 100 Block of 20 St. East during school hours would produce a report, with selections for robberies, break and enters or a wide range of other crime types.

He said the map will have features to help residents share the data with friends.

“They would also be able to share this data through their email and their social media accounts as well,” Patel said. “Plus they would be able to see the crime trends going on in their neighbourhood.”

The chief said that his team of three IT specialists has been working on the project, as a part-time job, since it was approved in last year’s budget. He said the capital costs were $20,000 for a software package, plus the labour costs for the hours his staff have devoted to getting it ready.

Patel seemed confident that the app and the website will be ready before 2018.

“That all depends on the timing, all the tests that come out from feedback we get from test users,” he said. “We will be launching it by the end of the year.”

But he wasn’t sure if the map will be up and running in time for the chief’s deadline.

“That’s a bit of an argument between IT staff and myself,” he said. “I’d like people not to have to update… that’s still in discussion.”

Despite the argument, the chief commended his team for their hard work. He said they’ve been ramping it up in recent weeks to fine-tune the software package and make it relevant to Prince Albert.

“It will be a lot of work now to customize it, so it’s not just canned software, that we actually make it something that’s more meaningful,” he said.

“That was the intent all along, for us to find a better way to present our data in a more meaningful way to the community.”