Simon Creasey assesses the current state of the market for public safety mobile working, looks ahead to its future and pinpoints what organisations need to consider when adopting the technology

The public safety technology market is booming at the moment. According to new figures released by IHS Markit last month, globally the market is currently worth just short of $16bn, and over the next five years it’s projected that it will enjoy double-digit percentage growth.

This growth is being fuelled by a number of different factors, ranging from public safety agencies replacing old, obsolete systems all the way through to agencies bolting on new and emerging technological advances to existing systems, such as artificial intelligence (see box) and predictive analytics.

While a lot of this growth is expected to be around the use of cutting-edge body cams and unmanned robotic vehicles and drones, it’s also anticipated that sales of mobile working solutions – which historically have formed the backbone of this relatively nascent market – will soar.

So what does the mobile working public safety market look like, how might it evolve in the future and what do public sector organisations looking to implement mobile working technology need to know before they take the plunge?

Historically public sector mobile working technology was mainly targeted at replacing mundane administrative tasks that required workers to come back to the office and manually input information. Its main aim was efficiency improvements, says Alex Kottoor, general manager at SceneDoc, which was acquired by Tyler Technologies last year.

“If you take the average police officer just about anywhere in the world, a good part of their day is spent report-writing and collecting information,” says Kottoor. “A, this places a tremendous administrative burden on the officers, and B, it’s not simple to do. In addition, the criticality of having information at their fingertips literally can be the difference between life and death, the difference between securing a conviction or having some person who should be in jail on our streets. Our goal is to help officers become more efficient [by offering mobile workflow solutions] and as a result of that digital data collection they are now able to share information in real time, with supervisors and commanders, who are able to make better decisions as a result of having access to that information.”

SceneDoc offers a number of different public safety mobile products that assist officers in the field with tasks such as evidence collection – including digital evidence such as images, audio and video – all the way through to basic everyday jobs such as ticket-writing. The technology is widely used by law enforcement agencies in Canada and the US, and Kottoor claims that users enjoy significant savings.

“We’re really proud to say that conservatively our customers are realising at least an hour of time savings per officer per shift,” he says. “So when you start thinking about ROI it can be weeks not years in terms of customers recouping their investment through these new efficiencies.”

Despite the promise of eye-watering savings, take-up by some public safety agencies has been slow, due to a number of factors. One obvious issue is financial.

“Police budgets tend to be either flat or declining,” says Kottoor. “We rarely see public safety budgets increasing year over year. But in the same breath that provides an opportunity for mobile-first technology to assist agencies to do more with less.”

The second key thing that has prevented adoption and innovation is cumbersome legacy systems. Traditionally public safety systems have been heavy on-premise applications, which cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to deploy and take years to roll out, so organisations tend not to look to change them any time soon. As a consequence, a lot of systems are ageing (some may even be no longer supported) but it is a big commitment to bring in a replacement.

However, Kottoor says attitudes towards public safety mobile working are slowly shifting, and he can see a tipping point being reached sooner rather than later.

“There are a subset of [police] chiefs and sheriffs who still think mobile means a laptop in a car, albeit this is getting better year after year,” he explains. “Public safety agencies are just beginning to adopt the core technologies you and I are used to using in our personal lives. Public safety is just getting to the inflection point where the smartphone is going to play a key role in core police operations.”

It’s a view shared by David Robinson, police sector lead UK and Ireland at Motorola Solutions, who says “the question now isn't should we do mobile – it’s why are we not doing mobile?”

Significant recent advances in mobile working technology – both in terms of hardware and software – have helped to sweeten the pill for some agencies that have been slow to adopt, but what is really helping to push through an attitudinal change is the rapid rate of cloud adoption.

A lot of governments around the world are providing frameworks for how public safety data can be hosted in cloud environments for the first time and, as a result, the market has seen an explosion in the number of start-ups and mature companies that are taking these applications and moving them to the cloud to make it easier for organisations to adopt, buy and deploy. What’s also helped drive adoption is the usability and effectiveness of mobile working solutions, says Robinson.

“The biggest barrier to effective mobile working is unless you can provide a solution which is making life easier for a frontline officer, it won’t get used,” he adds. “The way mobile data has evolved over the past 10 years, if you're just asking a cop to do the same thing, or even more things, on a device than they would be doing on a desktop computer or a notebook, it just won’t get used.”

That’s one of the reasons he says Motorola’s Pronto suite – which is essentially a complete replacement for a police officer’s notebook and also gives them access to forms and relevant online systems and databases – has been such a hit with forces in the UK; Pronto is currently being used by 20 of the UK’s 43 police forces.

“I was with one UK police force a few years ago and they said 80 per cent of all of the intelligence in the force is walking around in people’s heads, and if they’re lucky 50 per cent [of that intelligence] makes it onto the system,” says Robinson.

Statistics like this are why we’re starting to see more public safety agencies looking to implement mobile working solutions. For many of these agencies a good starting point is to conduct a small-scale trial to see how the technology might work for them, advises Chris Eccles, CTO of Coeus Software.

“Consider software-as-a-service solutions as these have the lowest upfront costs, allowing savings to be realised sooner, at lower risk and with less lock-in,” he adds. “Look closely at the processes you want to mobilise and see if you can optimise them. Many legacy processes assume the use of paper forms and can often be simplified, or broken down into smaller processes. Look at every data item collected and review whether you actually need it.”

Eccles points out that some data can be collected automatically, such as location co-ordinates, so public safety bodies should also consider whether they need to record this sort of additional information, which could place an unnecessary addition burden on the end-user. Another tip he offers is to examine how scalable the solution is.

“Can I easily scale up the number of users and processes that the solution supports?” says Eccles. “PoliceBox [Coeus’s police mobility platform], for example, has been deployed successfully at a police force of about 30,000-plus users, but technically the platform can support many millions of users. When it comes to the number of processes that can be supported, this is only dependent on the storage on your device and can be at least several hundred processes.”

Due to the fast-changing nature of technology in this sector, public safety organisations need to look at the lifecycle of the devices that the mobile working applications are running on, says Phil Sanders, public sector sales lead, UK and Ireland at Zebra Technologies.

“A lot of our products and technologies are designed to last over an eight- to 10-year-period, so when we sit down with customers they've got to look at what their return on investment cycle will look like,” advises Sanders. “We’re [currently] having long conversations with many customers around Android operating systems and how our product will be kept up to date with the latest Android builds. The overall experience of some of the accessory eco-systems around battery management and things like that are also becoming very important in discussions because most customers are looking for a longer lifecycle out of that technology.”

While exploring the lifecycle of a mobile working application, public safety organisations shouldn’t just consider their immediate requirements.

“Look at capability rather than specific functionality in a product,” says Eccles. “What future processes might you mobilise? Can the solutions you are considering handle new requirements in future, and at what cost? Can you define your own processes and to what extend are you reliant on the vendor? Some projects fail because implementation cannot keep up with changing requirements. Make sure the solution you choose is agile and can cope with rapid change in a cost-effective way.”

This latter point is crucial because additional functionality is being added to public safety mobile working solutions all the time. A good example of this is biometrics.

“Biometrics is not a new thing, but its use in the field is becoming more prevalent because of the technology enablement now – it’s much faster to upload information,” says Thomas Lynch, executive director for security technology, safe cities and critical communications at IHS Markit.

To this end, Motorola Solutions recently added access to the UK Home Office’s biometric services gateway to Pronto.

“So on your device you have the biometric services application within Pronto, which means that if you stop somebody and suspect that individual of having committed an offence and given false identification, you can plug in a fingerprint reader to the bottom of your smartphone, open up the biometric services application and get the member of the public to put their finger on the reader,” says Robinson. “Pronto then checks the databases and gives you all of the information back on that person.”

That saves the officer a significant amount of time because they don't have to drive back to the police station and be holed up in a custody suite trying to establish the identity of the suspect. Robinson says this new function has been a big hit and he anticipates that in the future fewer peripherals such as fingerprint readers will be required as it will be possible to do everything on the smartphone itself, which reduces the amount of kit that forces need to buy and officers need to carry.

While significant improvements have been made and continue to be made in the area of public safety mobile working technology, there is still room for further improvement. One potential lingering issue is the connectivity requirements of this type of kit.

“Some processes need immediate connectivity – for example, reporting on an incident in real time – others are not so time-critical,” says Eccles. “Applications which don’t require continuous connectivity will tend to be more resilient and may make better use of network resources, as they can transmit less urgent data at a lower priority, ensuring critical communications are reserved for those time-critical uses.”

Any concerns around connectivity problems will be almost completely eradicated when 5G is widely introduced. “5G will be a game-changer for public safety and it will really drive this market,” says Lynch. However, he is quick to point out that we still don’t have widespread 4G coverage, so even though 5G may be “just around the corner for consumers, it’s a long way away for public safety [users]”.

While organisations may have to wait a while for the meteoric improvements that 5G promises, the public safety technology market will continue to boom regardless, according to Lynch.

“We live in a world where terrorism continues to rise, where there are more natural disasters and where more public safety organisations are looking for efficiency gains,” he says. “The world has changed and technology has really made an impact. For public safety to keep up with these changes they need to change their approach and be much more technology-focused.”

The rise of AI
Many public safety mobile working solutions started out with the aim of increasing efficiencies and reducing the need for manual inputting of information.

But over the coming years, SceneDoc’s Alex Kottoor believes that greater levels of integration of machine leaning and artificial intelligence (AI) in mobile working products will bring radical efficiency improvements.

"If you think about the manual process of data collection and reporting, so much of this can be sped up using machine learning and AI,” says Kottoor. “We've already started to introduce little bits of that [AI] in our forms engine to cut down on the number of fields officers see when they are doing a crash report, for example."

He says the end game is "reducing clicks to make it as fast as humanly possible to write a report, with a goal of radically reducing the manual process of reporting altogether. If we can get to the day where 75 per cent of the report is pre-filled because of what the officer has already witnessed or the agency has already collected on that given subject – that’s the goal.”

It’s an ambition that is shared by Motorola Solutions. David Robinson says the company is already looking at how it can introduce AI to make life even easier for officers.

“At the moment mobile data solutions are user-led,” says Robinson. “So I, as an officer, am capturing information and putting it into a system. Why is it not the case the system knows both where and when the crimes may have been committed and the device knows where I am because it’s GPS-enabled?”

In addition to easing the burden of recording information, he believes that AI offers the opportunity to proactively task and brief officers in real time.

“There are various analytics solutions across the world that can predict to a fairly high degree of confidence where anti-social behaviour will occur and we now know – because officers are capturing information in real-time – where stop searches are being conducted, for example,” explains Robinson.

“So the system will know where all of the anti-social behaviour is occurring and say ‘we know that for the next three hours we need lots of officers in the north of the division because we can confidently predict that’s where anti-social behaviour will occur, if it’s not occurring already, and yet we can see on the system that in the last 15 minutes all of the stop searches have occurred in the south of the division, so these guys need to move from south to north’.”

He adds that this type of proactive tasking and briefing is the inevitable next step in terms of the functionality of public safety mobile working solutions.

“All of the technological building blocks are actually largely already in place – it’s just a question of re-engineering them slightly so that they are proactive rather than reactive,” says Robinson.

Author: Simon Creasey