I remember the day I realized that social media would transform the way we communicate with each other – and the impact that it would have on public safety.
At the time, I was chief of police at a university. I made it a point to go to the roll call briefing several times each month across each of the three patrol shifts. On this particular day, the sergeant shared information on a planned protest at the university’s executive offices, a series of petty thefts and the status of a sexual assault investigation, amongst a list of other items. “Jimmy,” I said, “Where did we get this information?” He told me to see the third shift (midnight) dispatcher, Diane, who walked me through screen after screen of data goldmines. She showed me this new thing called The Facebook, along with online bulletin boards and other places people were sharing information “online.”
Back then, a single midnight shift police dispatcher could spend a couple of hours every evening looking around to see what could be found … and a lot was being found. This was before anything called a “Fusion Center” existed for most police departments and shortly before advertising and marketing firms started monitoring social media to better understand people’s buying behaviors and resolve customer complaints.
As the social media monitoring industry grew, local police departments nationwide increasingly assigned at least one officer to make his or her way around social sites, by hand, looking for information. Why? Because the social conversation was migrating online and good officers know to go where the people are.
It became clear that we needed a digital beat cop – “someone” with an ear to the social landscape.
However, as I began to investigate traditional social media monitoring companies, I noticed that there were three major issues that made those services incompatible for safety and security teams:
- Social media monitoring companies that rely on global keyword searches return results that are too broad and most officers aren’t trained experts at refining keywords and phrases;
- Social media monitoring companies that rely on geofenced searches are too limited. Currently, less than 10 percent of posts include geocoded data – and some sites don’t collect location data at all;
- “Monitoring” is great for researchers or people who need to sample data – but for teams charged with protecting the public in the physical world, expecting safety teams to sit at a computer and simply read through posts wasn’t going to work operationally; and
- Our communities don’t want to be monitored. We have a natural aversion to government monitoring our activities and I am sensitive to that perception and reality having spent a career working under an oath to the Constitution.
As I narrowed my focus and really started studying the process that safety teams go through to gather information – and how that information is and isn’t helpful for them – I realized that these teams didn’t need to monitor social media. They needed to receive alerts to threats shared socially – and, thus, the Social Sentinel service was born.
Today, when I meet with safety and security teams, regardless of their focus or discipline, I make it a point to distinguish between what it means to monitor something and what it means to extract intelligence through social media threat alerts.
In the coming months, we will host several educational topics via this blog. Each will focus on where the social media threat alert industry is today and where it needs to go to become operationally embedded among every safety and security team in the country. Join us as we all work together to get better educated so that we can push this industry to be the best that it can be for safety and security teams– sign up to receive our blog updates!