Security, Samaritans, and Crime-fighting Smiles
By Carol Posthumus, Fri Feb 15 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Mobile devices are enhancing the personal security of people everywhere.

Mobility is widely considered a must-have element in one's personal security and safety box of power tools in South Africa. Meanwhile, local innovative mobile Internet developers recently launched an innovative crime-reporting SMS system, Smiles - that's attracting the attention of crime and emergency specialists from other parts of the world.

If there's an inventor out there rigging together a macho crime fighting robot, inspired by Robocop, it would not be surprising if it was released onto market in South Africa. People's need for personal and business security is big here. And the high-tech security enterprise is huge. Phenomena ranging from bodyguards to sci-fi satellite tracking devices for cars, and highly sophisticated suburban fortresses, are parts of our existence.

Since the launch of mobile communications seven years ago, for many people, mobiles have also come to be increasingly considered as an essential part of one's personal security and safety tool kit. As pundits say "the security value" of mobile nosed ahead of the "yuppie value" early on here (though both security and status implications score big with South Africans).

Indeed, for a lot of ordinary people, a mobile may prove to be more powerful in a lot of instances than the armory of a Robocop. Information age clichés like "knowledge is power" and "access to communication changes things" come to have real, immediate meaning with mobile. For example, my one friend's family's car broke down in the middle of the wild life Kruger Park (with nosy monkeys bounding around the car and a pride of lions in the distance). In addition, they had a baby on board and a hungry toddler, on a blazing hot day. It was an emergency for the family. They could've been sitting there come nightfall in the game park - with yellow eyes peering out the bushes at them and all the rest of that Survivor type stuff - if no one had passed by to help, she says.

In telling the story, she ends it with "thank goodness we could call for help on my mobile". In South Africa, we've lost count of the amount of times you hear people expressing their gratitude in this way to the situation-changing power of a mobile device.

Mobile Samaritans, mobile power for more security

Interestingly, in recognition of this, Vodacom, a local service provider, last year announced the 2001 Vodacom Cellular Samaritan Awards in its Vodaworld subscriber magazine. They invited subscribers to enter the contest if they had "saved a life, stopped a crime or given support in an emergency situation by using your cellular phone". They reckon that in one month last year, for instance, more than 2.5 million calls were made to Vodacom emergency services (the mobile phone companies offer emergency line connection here as part of their offerings). Moreover, they make the point that "cellular technology is not only a powerful communication tool, but is also a powerful lifesaving tool".

Some gadget-inclined people here have also quickly discovered that your mobile's growing functionality, when used smartly, can offer security and empowerment, against unpleasant forces that make one feel insecure, in many other ways too. A local businessman here who had a nasty "I'll break your knees" style extortionist phoning him on his mobile - over a business deal that went very sour - was living a life of terror and had even hired a costly round-the-clock bodyguard. Feeling a complete wreck, he tells how he had suffered "the most appalling week of my life!" He had the constructive brainwave of switching on the voice recorder on his mobile phone, during his next highly unpleasant voice encounter with his tormenter.

He bravely did this, even putting the "heavy guy" on hold by mistake, at one stage, praying - as the recording function on his new phone was not that familiar - that the recording wouldn't start playing back to the sinister presence on the other end of the line. He tells us he was able to play the recording to the Scorpions, an elite crime fighting unit here. This aided him to elicit more help and support during his ordeal. In expressing "how bad it was", he also played the tape back to during a phone conversation. This proved to be an eerie but effective experience. Though, naturally, and on the upside, the taping and playback of happy moments in this "live it with me, as it was" fashion are experiences to look forward to as a growing part of our mobile lives.

SMS against crime - mobile app developers help

Moreover, entrepreneurs here have also rapidly tapped in to mobile networks and tools in new ways to launch innovative crime-fighting projects and as a part of high-tech security enterprises. Vehicle satellite tracking experts - such as Matrix - use cellular triangulation and cellular networks, along with their use of satellites, to track down and pinpoint stolen cars.

KwaZulu-Natal based Smiles (SMS against Crime) is an innovative community security-enhancing project developed by Always Active Technologies (AAA). AAA, headed by Rob Fisher, a well-known South African pioneer in the Internet space, says a lot of their enterprise these days is about Mobile Application Development (MAD). They like to play in the newest spaces, he says - and are focussing a lot of energy on the convergence between Internet and mobile. He sees mobile Internet as "huge".

Smiles is a wholly community-service project. Director Loet de Swart says: "It is our way of giving something back, by helping in the fight against crime in the country. By not sitting back and being apathetic, and encouraging our community to be proactive too."

While there are a lot of crime-fighting non-profit projects in South Africa, Smiles seems to stands out as being different for its tight location-based community focus and carefully thought out SMS crime reporting system (in typical precisionist propeller head fashion). Notably, the Smiles system even impressed a group from Scotland Yard who visited South Africa, who are looking to implement the Smiles system, with adjustments for their local conditions, in communities in the United Kingdom.

Smile for location-specific success and community knowledge

In essence, Smiles works like this: people register their work and home addresses with the project. Smiles then sends reports on crime - specific to the individuals' personal geography - to members' mobiles. As de Swart says: "Smiles aims to arm the average citizen with knowledge of what crime is perpetrated in a specific area, as well as how, where and when the incidents occur. This knowledge equips people with the ability to be on the lookout for certain types of crime incidents or put preventative measures in place."

He says the beauty of SMS - as compared to other crime reports in traditional media resources - is that it is almost immediately relayed - and people can get the news (directly relevant to where they live or work) rapidly. Business and individual members in their community are grateful for the service, says de Swart. One shopkeeper in the small coastal village of Ballito, for instance, managed to avoid being the victim of a roaming gang of thieves, after he got the alert from Smiles that a gang was robbing businesses in the area.

De Swart says right now they are in the process of launching a Smiles specifically for the farming and agricultural community, who consider the system ideal for rural crime-reporting needs. "Mobile is great for farmers. The problem is that farmers do have farm radios to connect each other - but of course they don't sit in their cars the whole day with their radios, so they don't always hear important community news on there," observes de Swart.

De Swart explains that a lot of care and thought has been put into the Smiles system. For instance, the reporting process is not done in shoot-from-the-hip style. "We're very aware that there are sensitivities involved in putting out crime reports on SMS. If there is a rape reported in an area, we have to be very careful how we report this. Protecting the privacy of victims, and also ensuring that there's no way vigilantes can go hunting down the wrong person, are all considerations. Thus every report has to be signed off by a member."

One of the definite attractions for members is the location-nature specific of Smiles' efforts. "People appreciate that our SMS reports are relevant to their home and work environments. People are concerned when you mention SMS crime reports that they would be getting these 'things all day long -from all over'."

Smiles also do not publish crime statistics - gleaned from their reports - on their web site; and are holy and protective about their members' database. "Crime statistics can be misused and misrepresented in all sorts of ways, so we're not into publishing statistics. We get financial support for the projects through advertising real estate and marketing partnerships. There is no way we will prostitute our very valuable community databases; we'd rather close the project down than do that."

De Swart believes that the power of SMS reports - working with carefully built and maintained community databases - is enormous, and will grow in the future. "I see SMS reports as an important part of knowledge dissemination about emergencies and security matters. Location-specific SMS reports are the best way to immediately inform a community about an emergency that may impact their lives, quickly and effectively."

Carol Posthumus is a freelance author, analyzing how mobile technology impacts our lives. She lives in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.