neighbourhood watch

Neighbourhood Watch FrontlineSMS-style

Not only established non-profit organisations can benefit from "long tail" mobile solutions. In this, the fourth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Georgia Popplewell - who manages a community-lead neighbourhood watch scheme in Trinidad and Tobago - talks about the innovative use they found for the software

"Blue Range is an upper middle-class suburb of 280 households located at the northern end of the Diego Martin valley in Trinidad and Tobago. Like many communities in the country, Blue Range has begun to feel the effects of the country's rising crime rate (543 murders were recorded in 2008), mainly in the form of burglaries.

Security post

The community has a private security patrol and a number of streets are sealed off with barriers at night. Blue Range also maintains a Google Group mailing list which residents and the neighbourhood association use to share information.

Just after midnight on December 4th, 2008, a resident sent a message to the mailing list stating that around 7:45pm he'd seen two men behaving suspiciously in the neighbourhood. Around 8:15pm on the same night, two men broke into the home of another resident. The resident put up a fight and managed to drive the men away, but ended up quite badly injured as a result. That resident and others in the area reported that they had in fact heard dogs barking around that time. It seemed obvious that if the first resident had put his neighbours on the alert at the time he had seen the two men, the incident could have been avoided.

With that in mind, I started looking for ways that security-related information could be shared more quickly and easily among the area's residents. In my work on the citizen media project Global Voices, I'd come across FrontlineSMS, and decided to try it.

After testing it for several days with a group of my neighbours, I presented FrontlineSMS at a community meeting on December 7th, 2008.  The service now has over 250 subscribers.

Message alert

Blue Range's FrontlineSMS set-up, currently run from my home on a Macintosh computer, a Motorola PEBL phone and a Clickatell messaging account, is largely automated. Subscribers can add themselves to the service by texting in "addme [name]" (numbers are verified before they're added to the messaging group). Subscribers can broadcast messages to the entire group of users by adding a specially designated prefix to their text, messages which are then distributed using the message "forwarding" functionality in FrontlineSMS. All security messages sent via the automatic broadcast are also archived on the neighbourhood mailing list using the email forwarding functionality in the software, where residents can discuss them and offer supplementary information.

The FrontlineSMS service has been highly effective in building a greater sense of security and community in Blue Range, and in helping residents feel like they are being kept in the loop with regard to incidents in the area. Recently, for instance, when a security chopper was hovering over the area for about 20 minutes, a message relayed via FrontlineSMS assured residents that the chopper was there not to look for perpetrators but to support a medical evacuation.

In a more recent incident in the area, a burglary on January 12th in which one resident was bound and gagged by the perpetrator - and his wife made to walk through the house and hand over their valuables - has nevertheless revealed gaps in the service and demonstrated that certain parts of the neighbourhood lack the critical mass of subscribers required for it to be really effective.

With each incident, however, more residents are beginning to realise the value of subscribing to the service".

Georgia Popplewell Managing Director Global Voices