BAPCO conference preview: The hard work is just beginning…

17/02/2020

Ahead of his presentation at BAPCO 2020, Microsoft UK police lead Jimmy Cockerton talks to Philip Mason about the fundamental changes which he believes public safety organisations need to make in the design and governance of cutting-edge technology projects.

Could you discuss the substance of your presentation at BAPCO 2020?
 
I’m essentially going to talk about the gap between where public safety is at the moment when it comes to the cloud - particularly in the UK -, in contrast to where the rest of the planet is going.
 
We now live in a world where it’s impossible to just follow what might have previously been regarded as a ‘simple’ systems upgrade path. That being the case, organisations really need to evolve new ways of thinking when it comes to this area of work.
 
That means organising differently, planning differently and leading differently. There is a huge amount of benefit to be gained from operating using the cloud, but organisations have to actively take advantage of it. 
 
Could you go into more detail, particularly around the updating piece? If anything, is the process not simpler in that the system will automatically take care of things itself?
 
It’s not simpler, for exactly that reason. For years, when it came to things such as control room technology, if you wanted to move to something newer, you simply installed the next version. With the current fundamental shift to ‘as a service’, organisations don’t have that luxury anymore, because software is being constantly updated out of their control.
 
To take a relatively straightforward example, in the old days you’d run a version of Windows for five years or so, until you literally couldn’t keep going with it. By contrast, the most recent versions of Word are being updated and improved by increment, every month.
 
That being the case, people aren’t just dealing with the new technology itself, but also new methods of governance and funding. And in the public safety context, there are clearly also urgent priorities around security and privacy as well.
 
What are the specific challenges facing public safety?
 
Again, it’s a matter of control. For instance, if you’ve got a mission critical system, and I tell you that I’m going to upgrade in the background every single month, that’s going to potentially cause a certain amount of concern. The concept of ‘evergreen,’ always up to date, services is a new one for public safety but it comes with many advantages.
 
One of the advantages of operating in the cloud is exactly that you don’t have to worry about updating everything yourself. However this does mean you need to think about how you approach change differently.
 
Digital transformation is actually quite easy in a sense, because all you need to do is throw money at it. Where it becomes difficult is when you’re operating a 24/7 service 365 days a year, with the chance that - if there’s a disruption - someone might die.
 
To what degree are organisations starting to address these challenges? What have you learned from your work with UK police forces?
 
It’s absolutely something which we’re seeing with UK emergency services organisations, although of course it all depends on the organisation. There are still some instances where people are trying to merge the new world with the old, which doesn’t always necessarily work.
 
A good analogy would be, previously if you wanted to go on a long journey, you would have to do it by passenger ship. With some organisations now, they’ve moved to high-speed air travel but still want to know where the lifeboats are. 
 
What are the other key technologies which emergency services will need to take account of going forward?
 
AI will be a massive one, something which, in the emergency services context, will be all about helping humans make life-critical decisions faster.
 
Linking in with our discussion about the cloud, we need public safety organisations to be more data driven, again to catch up with the rest of the world. Data analysis is now key to any successful commercial organisation, and the principles are no different when it comes to the public sector.

One key function of AI is that it helps its users weed through this data, in order to differentiate the ‘signal’ from the ‘noise’. The signal then needs to be surfaced to decision makers who are involved in life or death situations, and presented in a contextual way. 
 
If we look at video analysis in particular, the ability to view hours of CCTV in order to detect a particular individual or behaviour will likely be invaluable. These conversations are starting to happen in public safety organisations, but only in pockets. I get the sense that AI is feared a little bit.
 
Is the current - often negative - image of AI on the part of the public fair? What needs to be done to change that image?
 
At the moment, if we talk about using AI in video, people’s minds often jump to facial recognition, and the bias they believe it will contain. That they’ll be arrested for crimes they haven’t committed, in other words.  
 
That being the case, I think public safety needs to look in the first instance at use cases which aren’t contentious. For instance, in order to work out who was caught-up in the Grenfell Tower fire, there was a need to sift through hours of CCTV footage. How about using an AI solution which will let you jump to specific pieces of video, allowing the job to be completed in far less time. Surely, that’s good for everyone. 
 
Changing the subject slightly, what are the elements which tend to drive technological change within a public safety context?
 
If I’m being honest, it’s pretty much always switched-on individuals working within organisations. It’s certainly possible to make progress in most environments, but until you get an individual who understands what they’re doing, as well as the benefits of transformation, it’s much less likely to happen.
 
Looking more broadly at public safety organisations, it really isn’t that easy, simply because a lot of people at a certain level just won’t understand the technology. That adds an element of perceived risk, which is a disincentive to innovation as far as people at management level are concerned.
 
That being so, you don’t just need someone who’s forward thinking, but also that’s ready to challenge and have potentially difficult conversations. That can be extraordinarily tiring, so it has to also be someone who is really committed to what they're doing, because they can see that it’s ultimately about protecting people. If you think your task is just to keep IT ticking along, you're probably in the wrong job.
 
Is that attitude indicative of a lot of public safety organisations?
 
When you look at some of them, the culture is hard to change, yes. The reason for that is that the tech piece is often governed in the same way that the service itself is governed.
 
Emergency services organisations tend to be incredibly good at making difficult heat of the moment decisions, very quickly and very effectively. However, if you ask the same decision makers to steer a technology project, there’s no way they can apply the same rationale.
 
The only conclusion to take from that is that the culture itself needs to change. In other words, you either train frontline personnel to make decisions about IT, or you let the commercial side of the business manage it in the way that these things should be managed. 
 
From my perspective, public safety needs to go on a similar journey which Microsoft has been on. We used to be what you might call a bit of a ‘know it all’ organisation, whereas now things have moved to much more of a learning culture. We’re now continually working with industry, partners, and we’re open source and even multi-cloud.
 
Public safety’s not great at that yet, but it’s getting there.
 
Why is BAPCO 2020 so important?
 
Because it gives the opportunity for people with busy day jobs to come and understand what’s really happening out in the world. What’s already being done within the technology space, and what’s possible. 
 
For me it’s also about showing them that this work can be accomplished successfully, as well as encouraging them to work closer with the private sector. There are a lot of organisations out there who want to help make public safety better.

To attend Jimmy's presentation, register your interest and join us at BAPCO 2020

Media contact

Philip Mason
Editor, Critical Communications Portfolio
Tel: +44 (0)20 3874 9216
Philip.mason@markallengroup.com

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER