How GIS and GPS is revolutionizing crime tracking and personal safety

July 13, 2016

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With the memory of the Dallas and Orlando shootings still fresh in our minds, many of us have been asking what we can do to feel, and be, safer on the streets in our daily lives. Our fear is very real, but luckily, so are the opportunities to address and overcome it, with GIS and GPS systems playing an interesting role. Although not yet capable of preventing violence, they are at least capable of helping us to escape it.

Apps like RedZone, TapShield and others combine complex GIS analysis with GPS location systems to identify and map hot pockets of criminal activity. For many years, TapShield has lead the way, connecting college communities with local police forces to prevent and deter campus crimes; now RedZone seeks to expand that same sense of safety and community to the entire world, one city at a time.

Inspired by a potentially dangerous drive through Israel several years ago, RedZone's CEO and founder Ted Farnsworth envisioned a simple, intuitive way to let people know where they might encounter threats in real-time, and then send them directions to navigate around the hotspot areas, or "red zones", creating a way for people to continue to live their lives with a greatly reduced chance of becoming a statistic. The idea has come to fruition in the RedZone app, and all things considered, the timing couldn't be better.

If you haven't had the opportunity to try it, this free app for the iPhone and iPad can be downloaded  from iTunes. (Android users: take heart, a version you can use should be released sometime this year). This straight-forward, intuitive app allows you to view or report geo-tagged shootings, assaults, thefts and accidents in near real-time, and navigate away from danger with a single tap.


If things really get dicey and you don't have time to look at the map, you can still rely on turn by turn voice navigation to rescue you from trouble!

Of course mapping high crime areas isn't revolutionary. For decades police forces around the country have published online maps of criminal activity for their communities, and many have integrated crowd-sourced, self-reported data. In fact, the contributions GIS was making to law enforcement was a hot topic for Directions back in 2010. But what is revolutionary is the accuracy and speed with which incidents can now be validated, mapped and relayed to app users.

Every RedZone user has the ability to anonymously upload photos and videos of a crime scene for the entire world to see; other users can then comment, creating a live news feed for any event, anywhere, at any time, from a first-person perspective.  


Behind the scenes, this user-submitted data is validated through lightning-fast compilation and analysis of data from a variety of other sources, including police feeds and news outlets. Proprietary algorithms determine location validity from the GPS in the user's device, then geocode, query and geofence the area to provide the user with a street route away from or around the danger.

According to RedZone 's COO Steve Carr, the company's goal is to provide the highest quality data available anywhere, and get it into users' hands quickly enough to save lives. Traditionally, crime maps were more historical; better for choosing a neighborhood in which to purchase a home or visit a business, than for avoiding a terror attack that could pop up in even the best of neighborhoods at any hour. And it's that element that is revolutionizing public safety.

Even more innovation is on the way. When Directions caught up with Carr in June, he told us that the next big thing for RedZone is a more active emergency alerting system. Although the app currently provides alerts for local incidents, the company plans to beef up its functionality.

"We think active alerting is critical, taking advantage of all the geofencing technology we've put together," Carr said. "Our map is very intuitive, but in the end, what people really want is answers, which are not necessarily a map, so if I send you a text and say 'stay away from here,' sometimes that's more efficient than seeing a map that shows you where to avoid."

This functionality means that even if you're busy doing something else, and not monitoring your surroundings with RedZone, the app could still let you know when danger approaches—and help you get away from it.

RedZone also has plans to expand into a global system to protect you wherever your travels take you.

"We've had interest from a variety of countries looking to expand the concept in their the really big thing down the road is increasing the international coverage of our application," Carr said.

Currently, the RedZone app can be used in the U.S. and Israel. In the U.S, RedZone has found success in densely populated urban areas; areas where a number of active crime feeds already exist to provide data for their maps, and where users are the most savvy about avoiding potential threats. But rural use is also growing. Accessing data sources such as news outlets and police feeds is more challenging in rural areas, but user-submitted data is often more  valuable in the case of a spontaneous emergency, so the app maintains its value even in the most isolated areas.

When we asked Carr about his thoughts on the future of public safety and the role GIS has to play, he proposed that we keep an eye on predictive analysis. Could we be close to a day when the fantasy of Minority Report becomes our reality? Already, companies like Hitachi claim to be able to predict criminal hot spots by collating various indicators with location; for example, using geotagged social media comments containing drug slang in conjunction with the location of schools to determine that a drug-related crime is about to take place in that location. Although the technology is in its nascent stages, Carr predicts that those areas of criminal possibility may someday be highlighted on an a map we carry on our phones. For now, we'll have to make do with what we have—a real-time view of crime and a quick escape route, with the help of RedZone.

Stay safe, Directions readers, wherever you may roam.


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