As any community manager knows, crowdsourcing is a double-edged sword: On one side, a well-run crowdsourcing campaign can produce extremely valuable data while saving precious money and time. On the other, sources aren’t always accurate or verifiable, which is of particular concern to law enforcement. There is simply no denying that, under some circumstances, incorrect data can cause a world of problems.
The city of Boston embarked on a crowdsourcing mission on April 18, just three days after the tragic bombings at the famed Boston Marathon. Law enforcement officials were looking to harness the collective power of the city’s residents, as well as the Internet at large, to identify individuals suspected of being responsible for the violence.
While the effort was ultimately successful, several innocent people were falsely identified as suspects. Labeling suspects on the Internet and passing around their personal information can be dangerous, but it’s a by-product of leveraging the general public’s help.
A New Twist on an Old Trick
“Law enforcement has always relied on the public’s assistance; however, the proliferation of mobile technology and social media has caused a sea change when it comes to the breadth and speed at which information is disseminated,” says Nancy Kolb, a senior program manager for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
False information can lead not only to wasted time for law enforcement but also to damaged reputations, or even personal endangerment, for the wrongly accused.
According to Kolb, when public officials approach crowdsourcing strategically, the benefits outweigh the challenges: “More and more, agencies are using their social media presence to solicit tips and assistance from the public. Although this brings about many challenges for law enforcement (such as inaccurate information/rumors and the sheer amount of digital evidence that must be processed — whether solicited or not) there are real benefits."
One area where public input is incredibly valuable is when a child's well-being is in danger.
"Sharing Amber Alerts and other important information can travel to a large audience very quickly," says Kolb. "We’ve seen many examples where information from the public (solicited through social media) has helped investigators — from unsolved homicides to bank robberies to kidnappings.”
The scale of the incident in Boston led to the quick capture of the suspects but also brought to light new challenges. The lessons learned should help agencies operate more efficiently in the future.
Going forward, Kolb suggests that agencies use social media to build relationships with citizens. Proactive engagement and strategic planning will arm cities with the tools to act quickly and responsibly.