Digital

Mobile policing: Building a smarter organisation

Tim Willoughby, Head of Digital Services and Innovation at An Garda Síochána discusses the importance of user-led mobile policing and the accelerating impact of the pandemic on building a smarter organisation.

Albert Einstein famously stated: “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it”. It’s an approach that resonates with An Garda Síochána’s Head of Digital Services and Innovation, Tim Willoughby, who highlights his understanding that failure to understand a problem will ensure that elements of the problem “will remain well beyond the solution’s inability to solve it”.

Addressing and understanding problems before delivering solutions is a principle which Willoughby brought into his current role and to the organisation, from his background as a civil engineer. Similarly, Willoughby recognises the importance of bringing diversity of opinion to digital innovation, stressing the importance of avoiding the common pitfall of groupthink in problem solving.

Using one of his first endeavours in the role as an example, Willoughby highlights the ‘mobility project’ which has seen An Garda Síochána utilise smartphones as a platform for change. Willoughby’s team has dedicated significant time to working with diverse innovation groups to define problem statements in mobile technology for the organisation and, from the outset, the Head of Digital Services and Innovation has incorporated frontline gardaí into his team.

Explaining the approach, he says: “If you think the same, you get the same results, so you need to start thinking differently and the only way to do that is to create different teams than that which you currently have.”

Frontline/end user engagement is a central plank of An Garda Síochána’s approach to innovation in digital mobility, alongside other principles such as agile working; solution aware prototyping; feedback loops; real time piloting; and team diversity and open standards.

Highlighting a further major switch, Willoughby says, historically, An Garda Síochána’s held firm to its reliance on proofs for concept but have moved to a minimal viable product approach.

Agile

Outlining the reason for an agile approach, Willoughby points to the benefits of short sprints compared to long development cycles, rapid prototyping to address user acceptance, and better business engagement in a siloed organisation, as examples of greater efficiency.

Another advantage he alludes to is the minimisation of the training process required when integrating new technology through user-led design.

“With an agile approach you have less training because the applications which you are building are designed by users for users. That means that when they receive them, the core focus is on familiarisation rather than training because staff are so familiar with the business process,” explains Willoughby.

As well as end user input, the Head of Digital Services and Innovation also highlights inclusion of data stakeholders in the design of mobility technology. Explaining the process, Willoughby says: “If you think of a garda at the side of the road they are checking for things like tax, insurance or vehicle roadworthiness. They are doing that with data which is not ours but belongs to various stakeholders. So, we put an awful lot of onus on those stakeholders coming to our workshops to look at the end-to-end process and put in place greater responsibility on data reliability.”

A major project undertaken by Willoughby and is team was collaboration with users to deliver a set of principles required of any project.

“Because of all the familiarisation we had done with making the applications right for the end user we were confident in posting the handsets out, allowing staff to self-enrol and complete online training.”

The most prominent principle to emerge from the process was that of ‘once and done’, meaning that gardaí have the ability to start and finish something at the side of the road. Willoughby explains that this principle is now central to all design. One example he illustrates is the use of an application which enables a speed gun to automatically issues tickets for a ‘once and done’ approach. Willoughby says that of the roughly 670 different offences monitored by An Garda Síochána, 600 are now once and done in nature.

Other principles to emerge include mobile first, or a recognition that technology that does not work on-the-go is of little use; public self-service to improve engagement with the public; and evidence-based policing, ensuring that the necessary evidence to do the job is available.

Core to the latter principle is the need for quality data capture. Willoughby explains: “We have to ensure that the data capture that we undertake is of a high quality. In each app that we have developed, we omit physical data entry, meaning that the information available on the frontline is already readily available, within the system, for greater efficiency. It’s vital then that that information is of a high quality.”

Pandemic

Discussing how An Garda Síochána’s approach to mobile policing was impacted by the pandemic, Willoughby points to a pre-existing availability of roughly 70 people in the organisation able to work from home concurrently, mainly comprising senior staff with a need for access to back-end systems.

“Where we started from was questioning how we could increase the pools of technology so that our front-end users could work from home. In recognising that our training college was to cease, we dismantled our training environment and scavenged the servers to put into virtual pools to dramatically increase our virtual desktop infrastructure and facilitate greater levels of homeworking,” he says.

“We had also originally rolled out around 1,200 handheld devices to our frontline and our challenge was how we would increase that rollout. Because of all the familiarisation we had done with making the applications right for the end user we were confident in posting the handsets out, allowing staff to self-enrol and complete online training.”

Explaining how the user-centred approach to application development has been core to current delivery, the Head of Digital Services and Innovation points to the purchasing and rollout of docking monitors, which support USBC and allow the running of An Garda Síochána’s whole suite of applications via mobile devices. The monitors are now being used by all of the organisation’s call centre staff in their own homes and have facilitated new working environments for guards to bubble in their respective teams.

As a result of Covid-19, the organisation has changed its desktop policy and mobile device strategy to ensure that technology rollout is better suited to the needs rather than the rank of the employee.

Challenges

One of the major challenges facing greater delivery of mobile policing was that of connectivity and numerous stations which are, as Willoughby describes, “at the edge of the network” and not served well by broadband. Mobile repeaters and an amplifier inside such stations have facilitated gardaí located in these stations to utilise their mobile devices in the same manner. A similar set up is being used within cars, boosting the mobile signal for guards around the country meaning that their vehicles can now effectively serve as stations.

Concluding, Willoughby re-emphasises the contribution that frontline feedback has made to the delivery of the ambition to build a smarter organisation. “With the right technology, information-led policing is actually making a difference,” he summarises.

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