Tweet3PO's creators say the future of crime fighting isn't neighborhood watch - it's social media

Christopher Balogh

If George Zimmerman had access to Tweet3PO Trayvon Martin may never have been shot.

That's a pretty bold statement, but it's one that Dave Grobleski, an Orlando resident and one of the founders of Tweet3PO, a service that gives people access to calls made to the Orlando Police Department as they're being dispatched, stands by. He says the company, a little startup based in his downtown home, helps neighbors combat crime without ever having to confront someone they think might be suspicious.

“With the use of Tweet3PO, the chances of conflict can decrease,” says Grobleski, who works remotely as a full-time architect for Microsoft's Justice and Public Safety Practice, which helps the company create public safety programs. Instead of having “Zimmerman types driving around at night with guns in their cars,” Grobleski says, Tweet3PO shares information about suspicious activity in neighborhoods so people can take precautions to keep themselves safe until the police arrive.

Tweet3PO was founded by Grobleski and his friend John “Diggz” Higgins in the spring of 2009. Tweet3PO is a Twitter bot – an automated Twitter feed that uses software to send out messages to subscribed users – that sends subscribers Twitter messages tailored to their zip codes that describe calls for police in their neighborhoods. For instance, on the afternoon of May 30, Tweet3PO sent out a message to those subscribed to its Princeton/SilverStar feed: “#Trespasser 3101 W PRINCETON ST 32808 (5/30 16:29) #Orlando #PrincetonSilverStar”; to its Central Business District feed: “#SuspiciousPerson W PINE ST & S GARLAND AV 32801 (5/30 15:38) #Orlando #CentralBusinessDistrict.” Tweet3PO's Twitter profile (@Tweet3PO) says the service has sent out 251,200 tweets since joining Twitter on July 13, 2009.

When it first started, Tweet3PO covered just a few zip codes, but now it serves all communities in the city of Orlando. Any dispatched call reported through the Orlando Police Department's website, cityoforlando.net/police/activecalls, is transmitted through Tweet3PO as the site updates every 10 minutes. Everything from breaking-and-entering to theft to attempted suicides may be tweeted through the service. If the police list it on their active calls list, Tweet3PO broadcasts it.

Grobleski says the service engages neighbors in a way that in-person neighborhood-watch efforts can't.

“Giving neighbors a mechanism to become socially engaged strengthens the bonds of a community and naturally deters crime,” Grobleski says. “Instead of having occasional communication with your neighbors about crime in the neighborhood, now your phone could go off three times a day in your pocket, letting you know that you should be on the lookout.”

Higgins (who prefers to be called Diggz, since that's the name he's known by in the tech community), and Grobleski, who are like the nerdy version of Abbott and Costello – Diggz is tall and straight and serious, Grobleski is short, squat and speaks a mile-a-minute – say their system could completely replace in-person neighborhood watch programs, where people have to actually leave their homes, walk the streets and call the police if they notice illegal activity. It's safer, they say, because people never run the risk of encountering someone they're concerned about face-to-face, and all of a community's followers – not just the person who reports an incident – are immediately made aware of what's going on around them. The two say this service brings crime-fighting to the digital frontier and makes communities safer.

“Tweet3PO is an awareness tool, created to augment the effectiveness of traditional neighborhood watch,” Grobleski says. “It has succeeded in bringing a heightened sense of community participation in the neighborhood.”

However, the service does have its down sides, at least for some. It's entirely automated, based on Twitter and unfiltered by human editors. It reveals complete addresses of the locations of calls for police assistance – including calls for attempted suicides and for both violent and nonviolent mentally ill individuals – if the police report them. Some say sharing the information via social media, making it even more widely available, could actually expose some crime victims, or those in sensitive situations, to greater risk.

Grobleski says he's heard that criticism before, but he doesn't buy it.

“Any information we pass along has already been posted publicly by the local agency,” Grobleski says, which means it's available to anyone who wants it. “We do not ask for or use any data that's not already considered public.”

Besides, Grobleski says, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

Like a lot of technology success stories, the Tweet3PO story starts in a mundane place – Apple and Hewlett-Packard were both launched from garages; this story starts on Grobleski's front porch in Lake Eola Heights in downtown Orlando.

“Diggz just got back from the 140 Character Conference, which discussed new ways to use Twitter,” Grobleski recalls. Diggz, chief tech evangelist for Tropo.com, an Orlando-based company that builds communications apps and the founder of Orlando nonprofit Geeks Without Bounds, which develops humanitarian technology, says he wasn't quite sure what practical use this trivial-seeming social-media application could possibly have. “Even though I just came back from the conference, we still couldn't figure out what the hell Twitter could be used for,” he says.

As they sat on their porch, two OPD cars sped by in a flash. Rather than simply wonder where the cars were going, they decided to find out for themselves.

“Since my job with Microsoft deals with law enforcement agency technology, I knew what to look for, so I looked for the CAD (computer-assisted dispatch) of OPD's active calls list on the Internet,” Grobleski says. The two found the information they wanted, and that's when they realized that there was a useful application for Twitter after all.

“We took the open-government data from the website and built a code around it, to feed through a Twitter account,” he says, and built a prototype of the project that night. The tech-geek duo, who've known one another for a decade, named it Tweet3PO in a nod to Star Wars' golden android, C-3PO, a robot that specialized in bridging the gap between human and machine communications. After looking into ways to use social media to distribute open-government data, they contacted the Orlando Police Department to ask for its cooperation. A few months later, Tweet3PO went live.

The service has had modest success – it has 577 followers on Twitter and reports crime from all corners of the city – but the two say they aren't trying to monetize the project. They do, however, hope to promote it as a civic initiative.

“We are looking to expand on the philosophies of open-government data,” Grobleski says. “We don't want to expand it as a product, but as a concept to spread to other communities.”

Grobleski says he realized after attending neighborhood meetings that the traditional neighborhood-watch system seemed particularly low-tech and inefficient. He figured Tweet3PO could do a better job reaching more people. “Traditional neighborhood watch consists of pamphlets, signs and phone trees, which seems a bit outdated,” he says. “Getting people in communities to meet each other and communicate on neighborhood-awareness topics has always been a challenge. New social media technologies like Facebook and Twitter bridge those gaps.”

Diggz says moving to social media is “the natural evolution of the neighborhood newsletters.”

“It's a simple, free way to connect with your neighbors and your government officials,” he says. “I think of Tweet3PO as handing a virtual walkie-talkie to all my neighbors.”

That virtual walkie-talkie helped police arrest an attacker in Grobleski's own neighborhood of Lake Eola Heights in 2011. A neighbor had been stabbed after confronting a strange man who had entered another neighbor's yard. The suspect got away, but Grobleski and other neighbors turned to Tweet3PO's Twitter feed and Facebook page to post descriptions of him.

“One of our neighbors went driving around looking for the suspect by using the description that was put out through Twitter,” Grobleski says. “He found a match to the description at Festival Way Park and took a picture of him from afar. He then called the cops.”

Police then arrested Colin Mann for attempted second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The duo say they're now trying to rally local government and law-enforcement agencies to get on board with their strategy, but Diggz says some are “slower to react.”

“Some understand the power of social media in community outreach, and the power of transparency in open government,” Grobleski says. “Others do not.”

One of the people he says who took a while to warm up to Tweet3PO was Orlando Commissioner Patty Sheehan.

“She also was probably hesitant on our project, since it would show crimes in her district,” Diggz says, and it took about two years of “in-depth talks and helping her campaign” before she was willing to get behind it. Grobleski says the commissioner even approached him about becoming her social-media consultant, but he declined the position.

Sheehan's aide, Bill Stevens, told Orlando Weekly that the commissioner would be willing to discuss the Tweet3PO project, but she was unavailable until after this story went to press.

Tweet3PO is not the first of its kind. In Orlando, there's even another series of Twitter feeds, @orlpol, that users can sign up for tailored to their zip codes (its operator, Chad Miller, who also operates a site that maps the last 1,000 calls to the Orlando Police Department, says that in the past, people have actually mistaken his feeds for official police-sanctioned Twitter accounts). Many large cities, including San Francisco, Baltimore, Chicago and Seattle, use Twitter accounts to feed police-dispatch calls, emergency calls and other government data directly to the public.

San Francisco, for instance, uses the DataSF App Showcase, which is a collection of applications developed and built by individuals and organizations that use datasets published by the city and county of San Francisco to send information directly to subscribers' smartphones.

Seattle's government has a dedicated website, data.seattle.gov, which pushes out datasets generated by various departments of Seattle City Government. The site encourages developers to create apps that disseminate the information – from the locations of bike racks to 911 dispatches from fire and police departments.

The Orlando Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff's Office both use social media to share information with citizens, and the city and county both have Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts for emergency management and to help elected representatives stay in touch with constituents. But neither Orange County nor the city have been as forward-thinking or aggressive in their use of new technologies as Grobleski and Diggz think they could be.

Grobleski believes that the future of local government communications will be based on using open-data technologies to interact with citizens. If the data is made easily available, he says, people will create all sorts of apps to share it – such as Tweet3PO.

Sgt. Vince Ogburn, a public information officer for the Orlando Police Department, says his department uses its own social media accounts to interact with the public.

“The Orlando Police Department has a Facebook page, YouTube page and a Twitter account that we post to,” Ogburn says. “The type of information that is put out on those pages are things such as community stories, missing persons, missing juveniles, crimes in which we are looking for the public's assistance in locating and identifying.”

Ogburn says he sees Tweet3PO as a community initiative, but not something that the police department is particularly involved in.

“We do not utilize Tweet3PO,” he says. “If anyone wants to use that service to communicate, that is perfectly fine and legal.”

Ogburn says Tweet3PO represents the natural evolution of information and technology. “We are in the era where technology is constantly changing and being upgraded,” Ogburn says. “We cannot stop anyone from recording, tweeting or posting something on their Facebook page.”

Even if the information is sensitive and those involved might not want it out there.

Attempted-suicide dispatches are made painfully public via Tweet3PO's feed, and indeed, on May 30, four such calls were tweeted to followers by Tweet3PO and through the Orlando Police Department's Twitter feed; another was reported on May 31 in the Baldwin Park neighborhood. Libby Donoghue, executive director of 2-1-1 Brevard Inc., a telephone-based crisis and suicide intervention service for Central Florida, says programs that aren't sensitive to the emotional impact they could have on victims can be dangerous.

“I think there is certainly a risk of further stigmatizing individuals and families dealing with depression or emotional health challenges,” Donoghue says. “Drawing attention to [suicide] attempts can also serve to increase risk among vulnerable individuals, particularly young people. I can't imagine that is the desired outcome.”

Donoghue says she doesn't understand what benefit is anticipated by releasing such information.

When a domestic-disturbance call comes in through the Orlando active-calls log, the address of the dispute is usually omitted (those calls carry the address of Orlando Police Department headquarters at 100 S. Hughey Ave.), but calls for battery, harassment, unspecified assaults and other disturbances that are not called in expressly as domestic violence are publicized, address and all, through Tweet3PO.

Muffet Robinson, director of communications for the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida, which provides a housing program for women escaping domestic abuse through its Women's Residential and Counseling Center, says that these details could have a long-term effect on victims.

“The desire to revolutionize neighborhood watch groups is admirable,” Robinson says. “But we fear that specific information about domestic-abuse victims available through social media could have a detrimental effect.”

Robinson says that 85 percent of the Women's Residential and Counseling Center's clients are victims of crime, predominantly domestic violence. Many would be afraid to report incidents if they knew that their addresses and private information would be broadcast publicly.

“It's hard for most women to report their situation anyway,” she says. “If they think their friends, neighbors, kids and others will read the details with one click, they might not report the abuse at all. And we definitely don't want that to happen.”

Diggz says that putting out this sort of public information through Tweet3PO is a win some, lose some battle.

“I think the positives far outweigh the potential negatives,” he says. “It's disseminating information to increase awareness.”

Grobleski and Diggz apply this same attitude about Tweet3PO being used for nefarious purposes – say, should an overzealous neighborhood watchdog want to use it to help organize vigilante activity in a neighborhood.

“Tweet3PO isn't intended to create vigilante mobs, nor have we seen any evidence of such,” Diggz says. “We're simply reminding neighbors that we live in a community, and the police help the community prevent crime.”

Grobleski has a wider perspective on this issue. He points out that access to police dispatch information has been available via private police scanners for nearly 50 years.

“This data has been publicly available for decades without significant negative impact,” Grobleski says. “The city of Orlando has made this data available in near real-time for over five years on their website. We are merely disseminating it in a more effective, relevant way.”

Grobleski and Diggz have bigger plans for Tweet3PO and other projects like it. They want to see the technology used to send all sorts of informational alerts to citizens, and not just in Orlando.

“We're talking to folks in emergency management and government IT departments, literally all over the world, about adding Tweet3PO services in their regions,” Diggz says. “I'd like to see this just be a normal part of how governments engage with the citizens they represent.”

Diggz and Grobleski have been in contact with Emergency Management Operations in King County, Wash. They are using the Seattle Open Government Data Feed to tweet hyperlocal alerts for the greater Seattle area. It's a volunteer effort, they say, and the reason they picked Seattle to do it is simply because so much information is available via the web.

“They run 12 separate e911 centers [including the city of Seattle], and we are working on assisting them to push their police, fire and EMS dispatch to the Seattle Open Government Data Initiative,” Grobleski says. “We can push out these incidents in real time to neighborhood-based official police-owned Twitter accounts.”

Grobleski says Tweet3PO can be used to pass along all sorts of municipal alerts to citizens: “Anything from traffic and road closures, amber and silver alerts to the transportation system, where your bus could send out alerts via Twitter,” he says.

Locally, they're working on expanding their Tweet3PO services into Orange County as well.

According to Capt. Angelo Nieves of the Orange County Sheriff's Office, the Orange County Sheriff's Office radio calls for service web page went live on May 8, 2012. The department puts out calls for service through the feed, but Nieves says his department does redact some sensitive calls and information – particularly ones related to sexual crimes and child abuse.

“We wanted to ensure that the community that is interested in doing so can review our activity, but again I stress that exempted information/calls are not listed,” he says. “This is to protect victims.”

Grobleski and Diggz say they have been working with the sheriff's community relations officer to get a county feed up and running, but Nieves says the department does not have any formal relationship with Tweet3PO. Rather, he says, the department is treating Tweet3PO's advances as an inquiry for information – not a collaboration or partnership.

Grobleski says it's common for law enforcement to take a while to embrace things.

“Law enforcement agencies, like the OCSO, are more about protecting data than releasing it,” he says. “It takes them a longer time to understand the full concepts of new technologies like Tweet3PO, especially with policies and procedures in their way.”

But once the sheriff's department made its calls for service public, Diggz and Grobleski got to work.

“As soon as the data went up, we have been working on delivering the active calls to our twitter feed,” Grobleski says. “We should have it finished within the next month or so.”

The sheriff's department has also been delivering information through its own social media outlets.

“We are currently involved in social media through the use of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube,” Nieves says. “And [we] use the mainstream access of emails, ocso.com, business and neighborhood watch and community meetings, news conferences, to name a few, as informational outlets to keep the community and residents informed.”

For the record, as of press time, the Orange County Sheriff's Office had 259 Twitter followers, OPD had 455 followers and Tweet3PO had 577.

And the more people who sign up, the more opportunities people will have to see how being armed with information can help them combat crime and deal with neighborhood issues.

Diggz himself has a personal Tweet3PO experience that he likes to share to show people just how useful it can be to stay constantly connected to a steady stream of public information.

“I was away from home visiting San Francisco last year,” he says. “I received a Tweet3PO notification there was an ‘obstruction on highway' in front of my house in Orlando. I called one of my neighbors and asked them to look outside.”

Another neighbor's 80-year-old oak tree had fallen over and landed in Diggz's yard.

“No one was hurt and there was no damage to my house,” Diggz says, “but the fact that I knew about it across the country in San Francisco, before my neighbor did, was pretty awesome.”

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