How Open APIs will improve police IT interoperability
Police users have been complaining for years about the fact that systems can’t talk to each other: it’s also been a recurring complaint in Policing Insight’s police ICT user survey. Now a group of suppliers have come forward to say that things don’t need to be this way and the solution is surprisingly simple. Here, Policing Insight talks to one of them, Clare Elford, Managing Director of Clue which supplies investigation case management software to many forces and other organisations.
Why is interoperability always highlighted as such a big issue in policing?
We now have two years of data from the Policing Insight user survey and one of the clear recurring themes is the frustration that officers have when systems don’t talk to each other. The frustration for them comes when they need to key the same data into more than one system – sometimes as many as six. Just as concerning is that data is often siloed in different systems which makes the cross checking of datasets difficult and increases the possibility of missing something important.
“Experience has shown that the bigger the police technology programme, the more likely it is to be delayed, go over budget or fail.”
If we take our users as an example, investigators using Clue for case management aren’t just using one system, but all sorts of specialist technology for everything from downloading and interrogating mobile phone data, cleansing and analysing communications data, scanning social media profiles, capturing and analysing data from paper bank statements and more. For investigators to be able to analyse the data quickly and effectively, the data must flow between all these systems easily.
Isn’t the solution to systems not talking to each other simply to have one system that does everything
Experience has shown that the bigger the police technology programme, the more likely it is to be delayed, go over budget or fail. When a force goes out to market for a system which needs to deliver a broad range of capabilities, often it will take years to procure and even longer to deliver. This means that by the time it ends up in the hands of users, it is out of date. Large systems do not adapt rapidly to change, and this one system approach can seriously stifle innovation.
What would be better for policing is if it can choose from a selection of products that best suit its needs. Of course, for this to work, systems must be able to talk to each other. So why don’t we focus on what needs to be done to ensure that systems are interoperable? The solution is not difficult, it just takes a mindset change within the sector.
You make this sound easy, but if systems could just connect to each other then why isn’t this already happening in policing? This doesn’t feel like a straight forward problem to solve in this sector.
“In providing an open API for your application, you are allowing third parties to interface with it and exchange data.”
It’s only in recent years that the power of open APIs has really been harnessed in the mainstream technology market. APIs (Application Programming Interface) allow two applications to talk to each other. In providing an open API for your application, you are allowing third parties to interface with it and exchange data.
This is now commonplace for software products on the market today. As a business, we use Salesforce as a CRM, Xero as our accounts package and Zendesk for our support. All these systems can connect to each other, so we can easily do things like create an invoice in Salesforce and that will appear in Xero, we can update a support ticket in Zendesk and this will update our customer record in Salesforce.
There is no reason why the technology used in policing can’t take the same approach, although we accept that this won’t happen overnight. It is not straight forward to build APIs retrospectively on ageing software. But moving forward, if policing ensures that when procuring new systems there is a clear and unambiguous requirement for those systems to provide open APIs, we can start to make progress.
Providing an open API for Clue is, in my view, essential for us to be able to provide a fit-for-purpose software product into policing. Ever since we launched Clue 3 a couple of years ago, we have invested in our APIs every bit as much as we have in developing new features. But there is only so far that we can go if other systems do not provide the same. Policing needs an eco-system of products to address specific needs, and provided that all the products in that eco system have open APIs, data can flow between them.
How would an ‘ecosystem’ work?
“This is easily achieved when both parties provide open APIs. This gives investigators best of all worlds, access to innovative capabilities as well as a joined-up view of the data for analysis.”
Let’s take an example of an investigation into an individual which leads to analysis of their bank accounts. When bank statements are received, they are often either delivered in hard copy, or they are scanned images of a bank statement. The bank statements in their original form need to be captured as evidence and included in the case files produced by Clue, but also converted to structured data for analysis by financial investigators.
We don’t specialise in converting paper bank statements, but there are products which do. We have started working with a product called AutoEntry which can recognise virtually any kind of bank statement in the world and convert it into an excel spreadsheet, direct from Clue. It’s a powerful tool for financial investigators who can search the data in AutoEntry, export to Excel or bring the dataset into Clue at the click of a button.
This is easily achieved when both parties provide open APIs. This gives investigators best of all worlds, access to innovative capabilities as well as a joined-up view of the data for analysis.
Another example is the need to connect Clue to specialist analytical products such as i2. We carried out a poll at our user conference two years ago and discovered that around 75% of the organizations that use Clue also have analysts who use i2. One of the main requirements coming out of that session was to enable the two-way flow of data between Clue and i2 to be as seamless as possible. Since then we have become an IBM partner and through extending the APIs on both sides, made it much easier for analysts to bring Clue datasets into i2’s analysts’ notebook.
There are lots of innovative products out there which when combined with others can provide a powerful set of capabilities to enable the police to keep up with and even get ahead of the criminals. When everything is joined up and connected, it can work.
So, you’ve proposed an API initiative, through TechUK (the trade association for the UK’s tech sector) – what do you want to achieve?
Over time, we are hoping that we can introduce a standard around APIs for technology providers who supply into policing. It’s currently easy for suppliers to say “yes we can integrate easily into other systems” – but without open APIs, the integration can end up being bespoke, costly, slow to deliver and difficult to maintain.
“Suppliers can tell when another supplier wants to provide everything needed for third party applications to interface with their product.”
We think that if smaller suppliers like us can do it, why can’t everyone else. This API initiative is about the technology community taking an active role in solving the interoperability issue. This initiative is entirely consistent with and complementary to the Police ICT Company and NPCC objectives to enhance interoperability in the sector. If there is a growing community of suppliers who are doing the right thing, police procurement can start increasing the pressure on all suppliers to provide the same.
And the good thing is that this isn’t something that requires slow and expensive collaboration – Xero didn’t need to sit down with Salesforce and write a set of standards or define how they wanted to integrate with each other’s platforms. All a product needs is well-documented, open APIs: FotoWeb is one of my favourite examples because they publish everything we need to be able to integrate our case management system with their digital evidence platform. Suppliers can tell when another supplier wants to provide everything needed for third party applications to interface with their product. Together, we can harness that expertise so that policing can finally rely on interoperable systems.
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