Hack The Police — an event where you don’t actually hack the police (unless they ask you to).

Sign up to Hack the Police 4 here.

Let me take us back to late-2018, I am sitting in a conference room at Hack the Police and I am finding out what I am supposed to be doing there. It’s a well-lit room, slightly larger than a classroom. Desks with inlaid power outlets form a horseshoe shape around the sides and at the front of the ‘class’, the hackathon’s organiser is explaining the aims of the hackathon. (Explanation: a hackathon is an event where tech people come together and build software prototypes in response to some form of challenge. It’s a coffee-fuelled, mad-rush to throw together something that would usually take a few weeks if it were done in a corporate setting. Does it work at the end? Probably not. But does it demonstrate an interesting idea and therefore warrant more time and investment? Well, that’s what these hackathons are about.) — As an aside, there is a certain irony in the fact that a ‘hackathon’ is an event in which people build software as fast as they possibly can, whereas a ‘sprint’ is a slower, more-measured software building method.

A gratifyingly short intro from Lewis Westbury of Police Rewired

The presentations are gratifyingly short and varied. The organiser opens the event; there is a video welcome from the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police force; two uniformed officers describe a typical day of work in the police; and the organiser finishes with the goal of the event, including the prizes available.

Hack The Police is dedicated to creating useful tools for policing and it offers police-themed prizes for solutions matching particular categories; for example, tools for working with the vulnerable or which will aid in the reducing hate crime. At the end of the event, a panel matches up the projects to these prizes and also selects one best-in-show prize. Any project also has the potential to be taken forward for further development as a useful tool within the police. Of the 16 prototypes created in 2018, 7 went on to this exploration stage.

Following the presentation, we share ideas on potential projects and teams are formed. Fortunately, the participants are friendly and welcoming to first-timers and I soon find myself in Team Splatten, sitting in a small meeting room, working on a machine-learning tool for identifying blood splatter patterns in a crime scene. This is possibly the coolest project I have ever worked on and despite my low level of tech skill, I find a useful activity. I am given the early-stage task of categorizing blood splatter photos, cropping them and putting them in different folders which will be used to teach the program while my fellow teammates complete the decidedly more impressive task of building a tool which can teach itself. With breaks for meals served by the hackathon organisers, this takes me the rest of the day and unusually (it seems) for a hackathon, most people go home for a night’s rest.

The second day of the hackathon is a mad-rush to get prototypes completed for the presentation that afternoon. There’s about three hours left to complete our projects but as I have finished my part the previous evening, I return to the conference room and select another small project to complete. One of the side-challenges that had been presented at the event opening was called the Buildings Information Management (BIM) challenge which begins: “How much can you learn about a police property through open sources. Is it enough to mount an attack?…” — I decide, perhaps foolishly, to dedicate the following three hours of my life Googling vulnerabilities in police buildings. Other hackathon participants later suggest that I should perhaps have used a VPN or at least DuckDuckGo. Am I on a list now? — I find some interesting information and create a PowerPoint to present later.

VR Policing demo. The future is here.

During the presentations, teams present the projects they have been working on. It’s awesome and, at times terrifying. One person, Umar, has created a facial recognition program that can pull faces from videos and match them to their social media profiles. He uses one example of a large crowd on YouTube and gets hundreds of responses. This would save a lot of police time identifying people in riots. Another team presents a Virtual Reality crime report tool, where all the relevant pieces of evidence could be placed around an investigator to explore up close. It is reminiscent of the film Minority Report. I present my BIM project, after which I am recommended not to share my findings — Oh, boy! I really hope I’m not on a list. After the presentations, the panel deliberate over the projects and prizes are awarded. I am awarded an honorary prize for ‘most terrifying presentation’, which is surprising given the facial recognition tool. The prize is a police whistle. The Best in Show prize is awarded to a tool which would allow people to submit CCTV evidence online. It is later taken on by Amazon Web Services for exploration as a tool for further development. I am also asked to submit my findings to the head of BIM so hopefully my white hat googling has been useful. (Explanation: in hacking terms, ‘white hat’ basically means ethically good hacking, where someone has asked you to find vulnerabilities in their system; the criminal hacking depicted in movies is called ‘black hat’ hacking. I’m not sure there’s ever been a term for ‘white hat’ or ‘black hat’ googling.)

Hack The Police is a fun and fascinating insight into the potential use of technology in policing. I look forward to attending again for Hack the Police 4 on 14–15th September 2019.

If you would like to join me, the link to get tickets is here.

If you would like to read more about the event, follow this link to the website.

Co-founder of Radical Engineers. On a mission to create a world where passion can inform ambition. Interested in how technology can expand creative industries.