Monday, September 26, 2016

Free Software and Tools for Crime Analysts

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity.

When I started this How To series in January, one of the things I wanted to do with it was to cover basic topics and skills for crime analysts. My reasoning is that there are plenty of smaller agencies that would benefit from analyzing crime, yet often these agencies don't have the resources to hire an experienced crime analyst or provide them with expensive software tools.

In this week's post I'm going to look at some tools that your agency can get free. Even though I am fortunate that my agency provides some really great tools for me to use, I find myself using a number of these free tools because they are handy and fill a need.

Google Earth
When people think of crime analysis and mapping, they often think about Geographic Information Systems or GIS. I have and use GIS. It's a very powerful tool. However, for quite a lot of crime analysis mapping needs it's often a bit of overkill. Many times, you may want to take a quick look at the relationship between a couple of crime locations or measure a distance. To use GIS to perform one of these simple tasks is akin to swatting flies with an elephant gun.

However, these simple tasks are easily accomplished with Google Earth. In fact, there is quite a lot Google Earth can do, such as displaying placemarks to identify a crime location, to drawing and displaying polygons for things like patrol areas to measuring distances for determining if drug or weapon law enhancements around schools apply.

One feature I use quite often is to export a Google Earth map as a JPEG image so I can then pull it into a PowerPoint slide for crime briefings. Zoom you map to where you want it. Placemark the locations with a relevant label or two, then go to the File Menu and Select "Save Image" and you have a quick map image for a bulletin, presentation, etc.

Another free tool I use daily is the text editor Notepad++. Text editors aren't word processing applications like Microsoft Word. They don't have features such as different fonts, tables or the things that make a document pretty. Text editors are designed to do one thing well, that is, edit text. For this reason they are used extensively by people who write computer code for programming applications.
Have you ever tried to cut and paste text from Word into a data entry screen on an application? Do you notice that sometimes the pasted text includes strange characters or it ends up with line breaks in weird places? This is because word processors like Word using invisible formatting characters to delineate changes in fonts, line or paragraph breaks, etc.

Text editors won't do that to your text. Pure, unadulterated text with no funny characters. Since text editors are designed to make programmer's lives easier they include features such as extensive macro support, programming language syntax highlighting etc.

One feature I really love is a very powerful search and replace feature that can make changing/replacing words or characters in a large body of text very easy. Another nearly as useful is a tool to change the case of text. Is your text all caps and you need it all lower case? Notepad++ can fix it. It can even covert case into proper sentence case, etc.

I use Notepad++ for things like cutting and pasting "boilerplate" text (standard replies or responses) into other applications such as emails, social media posts or database queries. Since all that is getting pasted is text without any formatting characters you won't have to worry about stray formatting characters ending up where they don't need to be.

I have previously written about the need to develop a strategy to deal with the large number of passwords a crime analyst will use. In that piece I spoke about one of my favorite tools for managing passwords KeePass.

KeePass is a password manager that will securely generate, store and manage passwords such as are used for various computer systems, websites and services. I have several hundred different logins and passwords to keep up with for systems I use daily to systems I only use every now and then. KeePass allows me to keep these in an securely encrypted file. All I have to remember is the one password to unlock the application and not the hundreds of individual passwords contained inside.

Microsoft Office is a great product. I use it quite often. However, it can be quite expensive to deploy across an organization. One alternative is the free office suite LibreOffice. This project started as a project by several computer software companies to provide an alternative office suite with word processing, spreadsheet, presentation software, database and drawing application to bundle with their operating system software. These companies provide professional developers and support to the project and released the software for free for anyone who wishes to download and use it.

LibreOffice maintains compatibility with most Microsoft Office documents and can read and write to those formats. It is also a very polished and professional application. For an agency that may be looking for a cheaper alternative to Office, it's a good choice. It also works on multiple operating systems such as Windows, Mac OSX and Linux.

There are other free applications that can be used for crime analysis. What are your favorites?

Monday, September 19, 2016

How to Avoid Annoying Your Colleagues with Huge Emails

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

The one tool I use a lot as a crime analyst is email. There are a lot of benefits to communicating via email. Unlike a phone call where you both have to be in available at the same time, Email is asynchronous, which is a fancy way of saying that both the sender and receiver can do their part at different times. I work during the day time on weekdays. However, some of my officers work nights and weekends. I send the email when it's convenient to me and they read it when it's convenient to them.

One of the biggest reasons for a crime analyst is to send email involves the distribution of bulletins and reports. This is also one area that a crime analysis needs to tread lightly to avoid annoying your colleagues. Probably one of the biggest annoyances for those on the receiving end involves the size of those BOLO's and reports in your emails.

I'm pretty fortunate that my IT staff gave me an unlimited size email mailbox. I send and receive hundreds of emails a week, many containing multiple attachments. However, not everyone is so fortunate. Some agencies impose strict size restrictions on user mailboxes. Plus, many users are now getting work emails on smartphones, tablets or other devices with storage size or bandwidth limitations.

Google suggests a 10 megabyte limit for email attachments. While many mail programs and services will handle bigger sizes, this limit will cover most services/applications. However, just because you can send a 10 MB file doesn't mean you should. It's also worth remembering some email systems add adds up to 33% to the size of an email with attachments so an email ends up being considerably bigger than the size of the attachments. Smaller is better.

I want to look at a few simple tips to help you reduce the file size for the bulletins and reports you send. First, we need to talk about how a computer handles text and graphics.

Text is the most efficient part of a computer file. You can send thousands of pages of text in a relatively small file size. For instance, the Project Gutenberg version of Tolstoy's epic novel War and Peace weighs in with a whopping 570,022 words or well over 3.2 million characters. However, as a text file it's only 3.3 megabytes (MB). If you compress the file, you can get it down to 1.2 MB.

However, computer graphic images such as pictures or image files are not that efficient. For instance, I took a photo with my cell phone camera and at it's natural size that single photo is 1.8 MB. That's as a JPEG file which is a compressed file format.  This one photo is larger than all of War & Peace.

If I create a blank Microsoft Word document and save the file, this file weighs in at 25 kilobytes (KB). A megabyte is 1,000 kilobytes. If I add five paragraphs of text or about 215 words, the file grows to 86 KB. If I also add my 1.8 MB photo, my Word document now grows to 1.9 MB.

The problem is that your computer doesn't often use all the information contained in a photo to display what you see on the screen. In fact, in most instances the computer down samples or throws out a great deal of the information in the image file when it produces what you see on the screen. Because of this, you can often reduce the file size of an image file by lowering the resolution of your image.

If you create your document in Microsoft Word, it's pretty easy.  If you select the image you added to your document it adds a Format Picture menu to the ribbon. Select that, then go to Compress. You'll get a dialog for Reduce File Size along with Options to pick Best for Printing, Viewing on Screen, or Email. You can also go straight to that dialog by selecting the File menu and the "Reduce File Size" option.

Each of these options decreases the size of the image embedded in the document. If your document contains multiple images you can have it reduce the sizes of all images in the document at once. In my test document they reduce the size of the document from 1.9 MB to 610 KB, 307 KB or 193 KB respectively. These size reductions also carry through if you save the Word document as a PDF (I prefer sending bulletins as PDF as it's compatible with many more devices than Word).

This reduction in size makes quite a difference. For an officer in the field getting his email on a smartphone, he can download your bulletin in a fraction of the time it would take if you were using images at full size. Plus, by reducing file size you don't have to worry about running up against mailbox size limitations with multipage documents that contain a lot of images.

It's worth taking the extra step of reducing file size prior to hitting send on that email. Your recipients will thank you for it.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Tear Down Information Silos at Your Agency

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

For the past few weeks I have been working with several other agencies and a company that produces police records management system software. We're getting ready to replace our existing system with a brand new system.

As part of this process, the company providing the software interviewed persons from every functional unit within all the agencies on this shared system. We discussed workflows within these units, how data is captured, how it is stored and how it is accessed. Even though we are all part of the same shared records management system, there are differences in each unit and in each agency. Some were pretty sophisticated. Some were less so.

As I sat through these meetings over two weeks I recognized several instances where units within agencies had either intentionally, or unintentionally built Information Silos within their agency.

An Information Silo is a term that was coined to describe how oftentimes an organization structure inhibits the flow of information between separate parts of the organization. Information gathered by one unit often times does not get communicated to other units within the organization. Just like grain stored in a silo, information ends up being gathered and stored without spreading to other parts of the organization.

In law enforcement agencies, these Information Silos might be that the Patrol Division is not sharing information with the Detectives or the Narcotics Unit is not sharing information with the Training Division.

Information Silos develop for a number of reasons. Sometimes, organizational structure and proximity prevent the ease of information to flow within an agency. If your Detectives are in a separate building from your Patrol guys, don't be surprised if  they don't see or communicate with each other very often.

Another reason Information Silos develop is that people in the organization don't recognize the need for this information to be communicated with other units. Patrol officers who begin to see an uptick in calls centered around a certain location may not recognize the relevance this might have for the Detectives. Narcotics detectives who see a new street drug might not see the need to get this information to the Training unit so they can develop new training materials around these drugs.

Information Silos also develop when there is no easy way to share information across these units. Most detectives at my agency work normal business hours on weekdays. They are not likely to run into a midnight shift Patrol officer in the hallway. If there are no designated channels to communicate information between units, then it's lot likely to happen spontaneously.

Another more problematic reason Information Silos develop is due to "turf wars". One unit may not share information within the agency in order to "protect their fiefdom" or avoid interference , either real or imagined, from other units.

Whatever the reason, Information Silos reduce the efficiency your agency has in it's mission. As a crime analyst, your position is often uniquely suited within your agency to ensure that these Information Silos are  not an impediment to your organization.

Here are some suggestions on how to reduce the impact these silos have on your organization.

  • Make it a point to visit with key players in the various units within your agency. Drop by the different units and spend time with the officers and their supervisors. Query them on the cases they're working and offer your assistance where you can. When you recognize related cases, or new trends make it a point to get this information to them. Let them know you have an open door policy and encourage them to come by if they need assistance or just to talk shop. If necessary act as a liaison between differing units.   
  • Develop ways to share information between units. These don't always have to be technologically sophisticated or expensive. An email bulletin, a centrally located whiteboard or bulletin board, or regular meeting can help get information flowing in your agency.  
  • Ensure your agency understands the importance of information sharing between units. Develop training and policy documents that stress the importance of communication within the agency.  
  • Recognize and reward those persons and instances where information sharing made a difference. If a Patrol officer's Field Interrogation Report (FIR) was key to identifying a crime suspect, make sure that you ensure they and their supervisor knows about it. An "attaboy" memo for their personnel file can go a long way to motivate an officer.  

You may not be able to completely rid your agency of Information Silos as some of them come with the structure of an organization. However, you can reduce these damage these silos due to communication within your agency.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Twitter for Crime Analysts

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

I really enjoy social media. Not only is it great on a personal level but it is very beneficial for law enforcement agencies to use to connect with the citizens they serve. But there are other reasons to be on social media. Social media is a great way to connect with others in your profession. It’s also a great way to stay up with things that are going on in your community and in the world.

There are a number of social media networks. Each of them have strengths and weaknesses. Facebook is great for connecting with relatives and classmates, LinkedIn caters to professional networking and job seekers. Pinterest is great for hobbyists. My favorite is Twitter which really excels with breaking news and links to newly published stories and articles. Because of it’s strengths I think that Twitter has a lot of value for a crime analyst.

So just what is Twitter.

Twitter is a “microblog” where users can send short, 140 character or less “tweets” or posts. You can post comments, links and even photos to your Twitter feed. Any of these can be seen by someone who goes to your Twitter page. Additionally, a Twitter user can “follow” another Twitter account and see that user’s posts in their “feed” without having to go to their page. It’s also possible to organize those feeds you follow into “lists”. You can even send private “Direct Messages” to those Twitter users who follow you. These direct messages are only visible to the person you sent them to.

Because of it’s brief nature, it is especially suited to sending a comment or headline and an Internet link or URL. For example, a news website might send a headline and link to a news story. The nature of these messages is one reason that Twitter is very popular with news organizations and journalists. This popularity is also the reason that Twitter is so useful for crime analysts.

Let me explain how I use Twitter.

First, I subscribe to the Twitter feeds of all the local news organizations and local journalists in my area. These accounts will often post news stories that relate to crime stories in neighboring communities as well as posts from local journalists where they may comment about stories they are working on.

I also subscribe to the major nation and international news outlets. Twitter has become so ubiquitous in journalism that mainly times, they are quite far ahead when it comes to breaking news. Major news stories will be posted to Twitter near real time and well before it will hit TV, print or even a news website.

I also follow entities like the Department of Justice, area law enforcement agencies, crime analyst organizations and crime analysts. This allows me to see press releases, posts about new programs or publications.

I then organize these Twitter accounts into lists such as local news, national news, law enforcement related accounts, etc. I also use a Twitter client called Tweetdeck that allows me to display these lists side by side. Nearly anytime I am at the computer, either at work or at home I keep Tweetdeck up so I can monitor my Twitter feeds.

Also, several times during the day I will post comments and links to crime analysis and law enforcement related stories. For instance, if I run across a news story that talks about how a crime analyst solved a crime problem I’ll post it to Twitter so others who follow me can see it. I’ll also post links to other crime stories that catch my eye such as a new crime trend, a public policy piece or new technology. This way, anyone who follows me on Twitter can also see these stories and comment on them. I also will comment on tweets from others or “re-tweet” their post to my followers.

Even though tweets are only 140 characters, Twitter is a lot deeper than I can cover here. However, the tech website Mashable has a great Beginners Guide To Twitter that should get you going. Once you’re on Twitter you can follow me. My account name or handle is @scott_dickson

Here’s a couple of other good Twitter accounts for crime analysts:

International Association of Crime Analysts - @crimeanalysts

National Institute of Justice - @OJPNIJ