Plans seem solid for future UK police technology enhancements, with paths for development over the past three years being paved by new public policies and NPCC guidelines. Strategic planning documents such as Police vision 2025 and National Digital Policing Strategy 2020 helped to show possible ways of working to achieve better police efficiency through technology. However, are UK police investing in the right technology? Are current guidelines allowing police officers to work on a wider approach to exchange data across many forces? Or are they missing out on more cooperation, and cost-saving scalability?
The siloed present of UK police’s IT estate
The 45 police forces representing the UK’s internal law enforcement are quite independent in terms of procuring new IT systems and applications to enhance their day-to-day operations. Most rely on their own procurement divisions, and, despite having common goals regarding national policies and what is being procured, different levels of budget and local crime-tacking priorities apply. More autonomy to procure their own systems has some advantages. For example, this level of autonomy means that forces have more freedom to build partnerships with suppliers and choose systems that would be more suitable on a local level.
However, the siloed approach can also lead to different forces using different products to fulfil the same function. Key applications such as information management systems, case management systems for forensics and evidence categorisation software have several different suppliers, characteristics and price tags depending on what is being delivered. The real issue lies on efforts to make these disparate applications communicate when joint efforts. The extra layer of bureaucracy and less interoperable systems leads forces to file more information requests, wait longer for a response, thus reducing their ability to work efficiently.
The short term approach adopted by many forces is to patch different applications from police partners together, creating point-to-point links so systems can communicate. The adaptations can be done by applying software integration capabilities and using bespoke software to, for example, connect two siloed databases.
An ad-hoc approach may work well when a small group of police forces are sharing services or exchanging information between them. However, the process of connecting applications through point-to-point connectors may be time consuming, inefficient and not bring real advantages in the long run. Barriers emerge when more police forces want to connect to the same applications, increasing the amount of extra work, as a range of legacy applications need to connect to each other without standardised interfaces.
Patching connectivity of legacy applications may be a good short-term solution, but a move towards fully interoperable systems and solutions is a better long-term investment. However, moving from a well-known legacy application to something unknown can also be a difficult political mission requiring months, or if not years of internal negotiations. Despite the barriers, the shift away from legacy applications can bring many benefits regarding cost, time saving and efficiency in the long run can be compelling.
Application Programming Interface (API) to increase police’s interoperability
API enabled applications could be one of the chosen paths to leverage data exchange and ICT partnerships between police forces in the UK. APIs, in simple terms, would have the capacity to integrate with multiple databases and systems from different police forces at the same time.
The programming interface would allow police forces to access multiple applications from their headquarters, while the API setup could serve as an integration platform, exchanging data with other API enabled applications elsewhere. The integration proposal is explained by the Police Box, who published a whitepaper on the role of police interoperability and APIs in July 2020 touching on key subjects such as API’s security features and possibilities of integration. Other companies more focused on the private sector such as IDS Logic and Belitsoft could also enter the competition in the public sector once the market develops.
While there are many advantages from using API, a process which has already been seen in major programmes such as the National Enabling Program (NEP), initial costs may scare away some police forces. Reluctance to change allied to the lack of information on its functionality may be hindering its development in the UK. To tackle adoption challenges, we may expect the publication of more policy guidelines and enhanced endorsement from Police ICT, NPCCs and the Home Office on the matter.
A good market indicator to the topic will be the outcomes from the 2021 Police ICT summit, which will take place online from 3rd February. The event will most certainly bring the UK police interoperability topic to the spotlight for part of its organised seminars and roundtables. Participants will then have a chance to hear more about the most recent developments on the topic, which we will, of course, continue to follow closely.