Oakland’s IT Department: In-house innovation
on September 11, 2016
Across from Oakland City Hall overlooking the pristine Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, the city’s 30-person technology department works around the clock to make sure public safety systems like 911 dispatch and police radios are up and running.
In addition to its day-to-day duties, the team develops digital tools to help police run investigations more efficiently while addressing the public’s demands for accountability.
One of them is a web-based app named Calls for Service, which puts crime reports on a map of Oakland after they filter through 911 dispatch. When a user clicks on a red dot on the map, it provides details about the crime and the time it occurred. The data is updated in real-time.
Calls for Service was created in 2015, after the police department asked the tech team to help them find a way to speedily release 911 call data. Prior to this app, citizens had to file public records requests to obtain the information, which took the police weeks or months to distribute.
Ahsan Baig, the city’s deputy chief information officer who manages the department, said that the app has been popular with citizens because it helps them to know about crimes that occurred near them and what the police are up to.
“They can see what’s happening on their block and in their neighborhoods,” Baig said. “It’s another aspect of engaging citizens.”
Baig said he is exploring other ways to engage citizens with the app so they can make the software even more powerful. For example, citizens could potentially send videos or photos that are relevant to an investigation.
“There’s the whole aspect of ‘How do I engage the community in helping the police department solve crimes?’” Baig said. “We’re still brainstorming.”
The team is also involved in a controversial citywide surveillance system called the Domain Awareness Center. Funded by the Department of Homeland Security, the system would combine facial recognition software, camera feeds, automatic license-plate readers and microphones that listen for gunshots to monitor activities throughout the city. Oakland officials are currently limiting its deployment to the port and the airport after a public uproar, but it will likely put the team in the spotlight.
Baig acknowledged that cities and police departments are under greater pressure to be transparent and he stressed that its projects place a heavy emphasis on accountability.
“The whole idea is to provide more and more advancement and enhancement as far as processing is concerned for the police department,” Baig said.
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