What if a police officer could easily communicate with hundreds of local people while on the move? The web team at the Avon and Somerset Constabulary came up with an innovative solution to this challenge.
Like all UK police forces, Avon and Somerset Constabulary needs to keep in regular contact with members of the public. This includes groups such as Neighbourhood Watch and Farm Watch, covering several thousand people across the region.
“We wanted a way for people to keep in contact with us and us with them,” said the eServices technical business manager. “We also wanted to engage with members of the public in the ways that they want to hear from us.”
For example, farmers tend to prefer text messages as they often don’t have a good internet connection via mobile phone. Neighborhood Watch, on the other hand, favor phone calls and email as they’re often based at home.
Previously, the constabulary relied on multiple communication tools and platforms. It was time-consuming and complex. And, at a time when police forces are changing in response to changing crime and reducing budgets, an officer’s time is precious. The rollout of mobile phones to front-line officers created opportunities for on-the-go updates but any communications solution needed to work as efficiently as possible.
“Our vision was to create a single point of usage for web, emails, SMS, and voice communications,” said Scott Fulton, head of eServices. “We didn’t want officers to have to log in to different platforms. We moved from having three separate databases—with independent platforms and duplication—to one database and one interface.”
“We had a couple of previous suppliers for quite some time,” added Fulton. “When we initially asked for tender, a lot of providers were offering a full messaging solution. But all we needed was a messaging gateway, a relay service, something that we could interface with through an API.” Twilio offered the right functionality, combined with slightly lower messaging costs.
The Community Alerts platform works on all devices.
A member of the constabulary, such as an officer or police community support officer (PCSO), logs in to the Community Alerts platform. It’s fully responsive, meaning the officer can access it on mobile while out on patrol, reaching the community within a few clicks.
Communications are highly targeted. For example, a PCSO can choose to send a message to Neighbourhood Watch members in a set radius around a particular postcode.
Equally, a message can go out to a whole town, or an entire organization. For example, an officer might send a message to the farming community (“There’s a horse on the loose”). This gives officers immediate eyes and ears on the ground.
An officer also can choose to send a voice recording through the platform to selected members of the public, all handled using the Twilio Voice API.
Since launch, the platform has been widely used by officers and support staff. “In terms of take up, the stats have been quite telling,” said the eServices technical business manager. “The forecast we expected has been exceeded. We think because it’s so easy to use.”
In the first few months since launch, the constabulary sent 69,231 text messages and used 10,106 minutes of message call time.
Fulton adds that one of the most pleasing aspects of the rollout has been—paradoxically—a lack of feedback from members of the public. “We didn’t want any real change in user experience from the public’s point of view. Right down to using the same voicemail voice for all messages. We wanted to make the transition as seamless as possible.”
The integrated approach has also caught the attention of other forces across the UK. The Avon and Somerset team are behind a number of innovative services over the last decade. For example, TrackMyCrime is now being rolled out nationally by the Ministry of Justice. The constabulary’s website, which was launched two years ago, has seen a doubling in its user base within a year, serving 2.5 million users in the last 12 months.