UNLPD seeks policing trends knowledge
Story by Jeff Packer, NewsNetNebraska
Preparing for and knowing how to respond to crime and crisis situations can be difficult for public safety agencies, but a homeland security center of excellence is trying to help agencies become more effective.
By collecting data from different college campuses, Tim Collins, managing director for VACCINE, wants to give first responders the ability to further prepare for the worst. Collins, 51, leads the center of excellence, which is based at Purdue University. Standing for Visual Analytics for Command, Control, and Interoperability Environments, the VACCINE mission is to provide public safety agencies with the means to visually grasp trends in policing.
Collins, 51, has been the managing director of VACCINE in the center’s first two years. Photo provided by Tim Collins.
“It helps them use their data strategically, operationally and tactically,” Collins said.
In just over two years of existence, VACCINE has collected nearly $25 million in funding from the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies. VACCINE gathers data on a variety of incidents occurring on 18 college campuses, with the goal of giving first responders a taste of what to expect in certain situations
This system, Collins said, will allow officers in different locations to have visual data about current trends in crime and policing that will increase effectiveness.
“What we’re hoping to do is show that something that works for the University of Nebraska police department should work for the Purdue police department, it should work for the Portland, Maine, police department,” Collins said.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Police Chief Owen Yardley thinks Collins is on to something.
Yardley was attending his first Big Ten Police Chief’s Conference in December 2010 when he heard Collins speak on the coalition’s goals.
UNLPD Chief Owen Yardley was excited to get UNL involved with VACCINE’s project.
“I’m all for staying up with recent trends,” Yardley said during UNL’s spring break. “There’s a lot of things that can be done, a lot of research analysis that can be conducted, and universities in general are great resources. I think the more we can interact and comply with the departments on campus, I think it’s going to benefit the entire university.”
Collins said UNL is awaiting approval to join the public safety consortium. If accepted, UNL will join 18 others, including the University of Washington, Stanford University and the University of Texas at Austin, that contribute data.
While Collins said each incident is unique, collecting and comparing data from different universities would be helpful in understanding when and what types of incidents tend to happen. For instance, Collins said, a police chief wishing to compile statistics about crime rates occurring at certain times, locations and even temperatures would likely find it difficult with current capabilities.
“So basically, it would take him about an afternoon to make that map,” Collins said. “Our technology can do that, really in under a second.”
UNLPD has used similar methods for compiling data from incidents at Husker football games.
Yardley said the Geographic Information System (GIS) used by the UNLPD has allowed officers to look at external factors such as weather and time to identify patterns in current data. While the GIS has been helpful for football games, Yardley said help from VACCINE would allow UNLPD to broaden the database to campus-wide patterns as well.
UNLPD has used GIS mapping in the past to understand trends on football Saturdays.
“We do that a little bit on a campus basis, but sometimes it can be a little labor intensive on bringing up some of that information and tracking it,” Yardley said. “Their system makes that much easier to do that analysis and brings in other variable factors as well.”
Collins said different or unnecessary variables can cloud the statistics, making it more difficult for the human mind to sift through them quickly. That is why a team of cognitive psychologists have been employed to help the center better understand which data types will be more quickly absorbed by first responders.
Brian Fisher is the director of Social Cognition and Interactive Expertise in Natural and Computational Environments (SCIENCE) at Simon Fraser University in Surrey, British Columbia. He has helped the VACCCINE team to understand the way the human mind works when absorbing visual information.
“We specialize in understanding the users, the people who have to think with these systems,” Fisher said. “We are here to understand the people who need to integrate these technologies with an already complex life.”
For Collins, VACCINE’s mission has a slightly personal note. A retired state trooper, Collins has been in the shoes of the first responder more than once. The desire to help first responders of all types led Collins to Capitol Hill March 29 for meetings with constituents about VACCINE’s success.
One aspect of that success, Collins said, was providing evidence of how VACCINE helped the U.S. Coast Guard to better understand its rescue efforts on the Great Lakes.
“There’s eighty-thousand-some homeland security agencies at the state and local level and you’d be hard pressed to find less than 1 percent of them that have any type of research and development budget,” Collins said.
The end goal of bridging technological gaps could take years to reach, Collins said.
With so few departments having a suitable budget to obtain the technology needed for VACCINE’s mission, it appears to be an uphill battle. That’s not stopping the retired state trooper.
“It (VACCINE) is an incredible resource that our country needs to utilize,” Collins said. “We’re filling a huge niche right now.”