The challenge was to find a way to show people the wide range of issues the police are called to deal with. There were many possibilities – for example, to release statistics and information about crime and incidents over a 24 hour period, or to allow a TV crew (if they wanted to) to spend 24 hours with a police team. But none of them seemed to hit the mark.
In a world where the Big Society is a hot topic, hyperlocal sites are growing and open data is on the minds of all public bodies there needed to be another answer. The key had to be in social media, and it was – in Twitter.
I am a recent convert to Twitter only joining about three months ago. I am now well and truly bitten by the Twitter bug and can see the opportunities it provides. As an organisation as well we have recognised what it can bring to communication. There could be no other choice in how to show real-time the incidents that people called about. How else could you really provide a short overview of each of those 999 and switchboard calls that are faced? How could you do it in a way that had a transparency and accountability?
My bosses are thankfully a forward thinking bunch that didn’t have to think twice when given Twitter as the solution. They had a few weeks earlier agreed the social media strategy and had supported neighbourhood officers being given Blackberries so they could use Twitter to make contact with people. Despite the inevitable concerns about confidentiality, privacy and data protection they were prepared to support the plan and take a leap of faith.
It all seemed relatively straightforward, work with colleagues who understand the computer system that logs the calls received and then turn that information into less than 140 characters. But there was the bizarre problem of Twitter jail and finding the best possible solution to allow what was anticipated to be more than 2,500 tweets in 24 hours. There had to be a way to ensure that we didn’t get barred from tweeting. The simple solution was to have four accounts that rotated as they were suspended.
Some may claim that this was a PR stunt. I would however say it is just providing information to the public. We already provide details of crime statistics on a regular basis, have crime maps and produce annual reports detailing incidents. How then is using Twitter for a 24-hour period anything more than part of this open approach?
As the finishing touches were put together and the team were put in place, we knew it was going to be interesting and attract some attention. There would be no hiding place. It was like allowing many thousands of people to sit in and see what was happening in the police cars, in the call centres and in the cells. What we didn’t expect was that it would be a global trending topic for hours after the 24 hours finished. It gave people an insight into something that people don’t usually get a chance to see and they loved it. There are probably sociological and psychological reasons why people wanted to follow it, or it could just be that it was genuinely an interesting thing to see the serious calls about heart-rending crimes next to the bizarre calls that clog up the phone lines.
The 24 hours was interesting and a useful piece of work that got people talking about the serious issue of what people want from their police. However, it is what happens from here that is the most critical issue for all police and public sector agencies. What more can we do to provide people with that opportunity to see things live? How can we really introduce open data? And are we able to make a move from traditional communication to embrace the opportunities of social media?
That is a challenge that we will take up. We are refocusing our work to invest in the future, one where the big society and open data are the issues. #gmp24 may be at an end, but it leaves a legacy. It has set the benchmark for the future, and to use a cliché – watch this space.