Until the 1980s or so, the information demands of policing were pretty straightforward. There was a police national computer (PNC) for storing and retrieving information on criminal records - accessible from police stations - and analogue radio communications usable from police cars, which appropriately tooled-up crooks could listen into.
And that was about it.
Today, though, access to information is key to policing and mobile access to information systems is becoming increasingly vital, says Ailsa Beaton, the outgoing director of information at the Metropolitan Police, who leaves the role this month after 12 years.
“We support 53,000 people in London, and it’s largely not a desk-based operation because of the nature of our organisation. However, we do have about 25,000 desktops to support, and that number seems to keep growing even though we are also becoming more mobile,” says Beaton.
Indeed, many of the biggest IT initiatives in recent years have involved mobile computing. For example, “executive” level police officers have been issued with BlackBerry smartphones, while a trial involving Apple iPads has also been started.
In addition, the Force has trialled mobile data terminals in vehicles to enable officers to access both the PNC and the Police National Database - the intelligence information database implemented following the Soham murders - on the move. “The last [major initiative] involved issuing officers with HTC Windows-based PDAs so that they can look up information: ‘I’ve stopped this person, what do we know about them? Are they wanted on the PNC?’” says Beaton.
“Officers don’t want to have to radio through to someone for information - they want to get the information themselves,” she says. The new PDAs enable officers to interrogate police databases so that if, for example, they stop a car they can find out whether the licensed owner is known for carrying guns,” says Beaton.
She adds: “For us the future is mobile.” That also means enabling officers to be able to take statements at people’s homes and transmit the statement straight to the police station - not to have to write it down and return to the station to key it in manually. And it is not just written information that the devices are used for.
“Then, there’s the ‘transactional business’. If an officer is issuing someone a motoring ticket, they can take a picture of them or the car,” she says.
Appointed as director of information when the post was first created in 2000, Beaton has overseen the introduction of new systems, both nationwide and exclusive to the Metropolitan Police, and seen how the squeeze in government spending has affected forces across the country, with many merging both their IT functions, and their IT director roles.
“We see much more [administrative] collaboration between forces now. Five or six years ago, every force had its own IT director. Now, I think there’s probably half the number of IT directors, as we have seen forces such as Hampshire and Thames Valley start to share an IT director,” says Beaton.
The Metropolitan Police, though, is the biggest in the country and has some unique challenges - as reflected in the riots of 2011, which affected London particularly acutely.
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