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  1. Technology
February 23, 1994


By CBR Staff Writer

Never mind the ‘virtual village’ created by computer networks, actual villages in Southern England are using the technology as an adjunct to their Neighbourhood Watch crime-prevention schemes. Since last April, Cambridgeshire Police have been running Camwatch, a Fidonet-hosted bulletin-board. In a simple, self-help move the community can tip off the police, and itself, about potentially nefarious goings on. Some 55 to 60 users in around a dozen small communities dial into the central machine to leave messages and pass on information. Camwatch is neither funded by the police, or neighbourhood watch. Instead the central system comes courtesy of a Fido hobbyist, and sponsorship from Eastern Electricity Plc enabled the force to buy a job-lot of old 80286-based personal computers. These have been given away, or sold cheaply, to participants, with heavily discounted modems courtesy of Psion Dacom Ltd. Chief Inspector Paul Styles, who launched Camwatch, acknowledges that it is difficult to judge the scheme’s raw crime-prevention efficacy. However, in community policing terms, he regards it as highly successful, with the once moribund Neighbourhood Watch revived, and in closer touch with the police than previously. It is possible, of course, that the Watch’s revival is due to the novelty of the technology, but Styles thinks this unlikely, pointing instead to the inherent difference in electronic communication. One of the good things about this is it removes so many barriers to communication… it doesn’t matter if a person is young or old, male, or female, back or white – it doesn’t matter what rank an officer is. Since the system was written up in a police journal, Styles has had numerous enquiries from other forces interested in s similar projects. Even the Home Office has sent a representative, who expected to find – so Styles suspects – a bunch of computer freaks, but who went away apparently impressed. Whether the idea spreads to other areas will depend on the individual forces and their respective Neighbourhood Watches, however Styles muses on the possibilities of a local cable television operator, for example, helping to host a system as a service to the community. Compuserve, with its network of local dial-up nodes is another possibility. In the meanwhile, Camwatch, like all conferencing systems attracts a lot of chat. Only about 5% of the near 4,000 messages so far posted contain nuggets of useful information but chat is just as vital says Styles, explaining it helps people keep the community together and if, once in a while the conversation wanders off into where the next barbecue is, well we can cope with that.

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