Are safe cities making us safer?

Published: May 25, 2017
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The writer is an honorary fellow of the Consortium for Development Policy Research

The writer is an honorary fellow of the Consortium for Development Policy Research

A Pakistani-born Canadian senator was mugged in Islamabad a few weeks ago. Within 48 hours, however, the police arrested the culprits with the help of video feed from security cameras. One comes across such cameras at multiple locations in Islamabad, accompanied with beaming lights mounted on steel-framed poles. These 2,000+ cameras, linked to a state-of-the-art network, are transmitting video feed to a modern control room round the clock. This entire hi-tech infrastructure is part of Islamabad Safe City Project.

Islamabad, however, is not the only city implementing this surveillance routine and Lahore is already on its way to become a ‘safe city’ by June 2017 with 8,000+ cameras through a Rs13 billion project. Similar projects have also been planned for Quetta, Gwadar, Multan, Bahawalpur, Gujranwala, Faisalabad and Sargodha. Many metropolitans around the world have opted to become safe cities, including Barcelona, New York and Beijing, while India recently announced its plans to establish 100 safe cities.

Do safe cities actually make us safer or is it just a semblance of security? With capable international contractors, the technology part may not be much of a problem, however, it is important to look at how such projects can work within the current law enforcement system.

The basic premise of safe city projects is early detection and response. The information is passed on to a control centre, which is then supposed to lead to a swift response by the police or other agencies. The current 15-emergency call system in Pakistan is limited to crimes reported by citizens. Anybody who has experience of calling these helplines knows that the general response time is not less than 30 minutes even in the best of cases, which is too long for any meaningful action. It is, therefore, baffling to see how the system which is presently incapable of responding effectively to citizens’ calls, would be able to respond swiftly to data streams coming from thousands of cameras round the clock. In a country, where pizza and fast food delivery takes 20 minutes, one would expect the law-enforcement agencies could do better. Even within the government, 1122 emergency response system has done far better and has set a new standard, which can be replicated in other agencies. It is therefore critical to make the present system more responsive to make full use of the IT-backed safe city project.

Secondly, the social media is replete with video clips taken from cell phones and private surveillance cameras depicting crimes ranging from phone snatching to robberies and from molesting women to kidnappings and terrorist attacks. Rarely, if at all, these videos have been used to run facial recognition tests, tracing the criminals. How the government would make use of massive video streams flowing out of these safe city projects is not clear. Therefore, there is a need to develop robust data mining capabilities to effectively use this massive information, coupled with big data available with agencies like NADRA. Some significant work, in this regard, is being done by Punjab Information Technology Board, in collaboration with the Data Science Lab at the Information Technology University, however there is a need for more intensive involvement and ownership by law-enforcement agencies.

Lastly, there is a need to assess how the system can be extended and tap into other available sources of information. For instance, there are a thousands of private security camera and CCTV networks with live feeds available, installed on public facilities such as shopping malls, plazas, children entertainment centres, schools, hospitals, etc. This information can be easily integrated into the safe city project to enhance its capacity manifold.

Pakistan is a security state operating in a highly complex risk landscape and one cannot undermine the fact that effective use of technology can enhance the capacity of the state manifold in maintaining law and order. However, any such use of technology must be supported with reforms on the human and institutional side.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 25th, 2017.

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