Not everything can be open

This is what a colleague said yesterday in an interesting conversation about policing. Wow. This has been a very difficult week, challenging my own thinking about social media this week has really made me question my own practices in my day job (looking at any elements of hypocrisy in my own practices both in and outside). It has kind of brought everything about day job, martial arts, technologies, change, social and openness all messed up together and now I can’t make any sense and running out of time, so going to try and explain it to myself using this blog post.

Should also state up front that this is my personal opinion only and that my contractual role is focused on internal online collaboration so I have less visibility on how forces are using some of the technologies externally – simply because I do not have enough time to try and keep up, nor found enough useful ways of visualizing. For example I found out about how one force is using technology this week from twitter and also an update to that from twitter as well.

A useful summary on police using social media was in this BBC article and also see Neighbourhood Policing and Nick Keane’s Cops who tweet and Forces twitter lists and an interesting Org9 list for international policing for the latest.  Its not just the police themselves but organizations such as MyPolice which encourages the public and the Police to communicate with each other using the web and social media. Whether its social media or  social networking is an important distinction that I am still grappling with but will return to later in this post but in summary tools and messages are not networks.


The Police Service in the UK looks to build safer communities and in keeping up with latest technological developments, looking to reform.  It has one key performance target area – Improving Public Confidence


“The challenges of crime and anti-social behaviour are enormous. Levels of crime, although falling, remain too high and detection rates too low. The police want to reduce public fear of crime and do more to build public confidence. This is being done through the police reform programme and reforms to the criminal justice system.

The government wants to create a police service which is more responsive to local needs and to clarify confusing police accountability arrangements, as well as creating a service better able to deal with higher level crime which goes across force boundaries.

“Constant change gets in the way of the police fighting crime”
The challenges of crime are changing, and growing and so are society’s expectations of the police. The service must expand and develop, the police service themselves believe that reform and modernisation are essential to fight 21st century crime.

Will you make all forces use the same equipment/technical facilities?
It should only be necessary to designate such products where there is a business advantage (e.g. in terms of crime reduction) in a number of forces, and sometimes all forces, having common systems…
…It may also be necessary for the Home Secretary to be able to prohibit the use of certain classes of equipment where there are concerns about their safety or appropriateness for police use.” 1

There is a lot in those statements which relate to how the police and public communicate with the resulting perceptions being formed. The police intervene in a situation, their actions are observed, analysed, the media/government/public comment – before this all used to be separate but now everyone does this at once. From what I understand about what being social is – this relates to how people connect, how they react/respond or not, how this is interpreted, it is all connected and use of media / tools are affected – it is all related.

Take an emergency incident for instance. A few years ago this might have resulted in a few emergency calls being made which need to be processed and forwarded. Now today there are multiple communication routes which both mainstream media and public services have to try and process, analyse and act upon. At the same time citizens are also reporting these which need to be added to the other information being processed in case of any relationships but as above – this is extremely complex. Haiti is an example where the #4636 reporting was crowdsourced and analysed. For emergency services this also needs looking at where it is appropriate for policing intervention and where appropriate for other public service intervention and who are the decision makers? The service providers and now increasingly the public.

But it can revolutionise how people can connect with the people and information they need when they need it – as demonstrated in the crowdsourcing response to the earthquake in Haiti. A huge amount of collaboration has been carried out using these kinds of media and technologies in the Crisis Camps:

“Working closely with the United Nations, the World Bank, and other groups providing aid, Crisis Camps everywhere have used the internet to create a powerful community with a positive purpose. Using every sort of collaborative and social media tool (open source projects, shared workspaces, Wikis, blogs, skype, chat, twitter, facebook, etc.) this group has pioneered a new kind of aid organization, working hard to provide tools and information vital the mission of helping Haiti recover.”2

As well as using social tools to look at and discuss policing, visualizations are also used to look at crime which are provided both to citizens and in some cases by citizens. Technology means more information available which means more complex visualization required and how is that supposed to be done?! Is it possible to just instantly connect say one tweet to one facebook wall posting to one phone call to one sms to one buzz update…I have no idea – I certainly don’t know of anything that does it…. and even if in some kind of world where you wanted to and you could, its just information. It needs to be analysed – maybe a pattern could be identified but again its just a pattern – it doesn’t mean anything to a human without a human judgement being applied to it. Then that human judgement is interpreted by other humans who respond and react according to their interpretation. And how do you analyse all of these interpretations?

These are all humans behaving in society and either according or not according to its preferred rules of operating. Does social media  and social networking assist or make the process more difficult? Not just that but the police are a public service operating in a very difficult financial climate so use of resources within the police (governed through police authorities and available to the public) will be interpreted and analysed too. Web and virtual worlds are not utopian – if your actions are more open it can affect another’s privacy but is that just perception and interpretation? It all feels messy – relatedness and connections are what form networks so are we just forming networks of mess? Hopefully good mess as much as bad mess but who decides this?

“When contingencies go unresolved, either by interacting partners or by the system itself, ambiguities threaten to overwhelm the system and erode its utility and functionality. In twitter, a rise in spammers and dishonest/strategic users increases the ambiguity surrounding Who the user is, and What his/her intentions are. This translates into a certain kind of ambiguity: the identity of the user. Which creates systemic uncertainty, and infuses interaction with risk. (There are two kinds of interaction on twitter: talking and following, so each one is vulnerable. Do I follow; Do I respond?)

Systems, unlike structures, aren’t stable. They’re dynamic, and they rely on continuous participation/interaction to reproduce themselves. They can endure only as long as they can manage (and their users manage) the contingencies they permit and produce. When the users or participants in a system have to handle these contingencies themselves — when the system fails because its own system constraints are failing — the burden of contingency can kill off the system. Users are required to handle the contingency presented with each transaction individually, where when the system is operating well, those contingencies are handled by the system.” 2

Everything that I have seen, read, attempted to absorb about complexity thinking says that you can design for uncertainty and openness. If this is the case, then who decides that what can be open and what can’t be – what are these constraints, what is the risk and for whom. If you create tools which allow perceptions and interpretations to emerge from responses to messages, signals which are then distributed and processed by networks, where are the points or nodes at which openness stop and start and does this create a safer society that can respond quickly and appropriately to emergencies, disasters, threats to security? How can we help organisations tasked with larger responses or actions to insecure situations, is it more effective to find other ways than trying to work around current constraints which are based on histories of events so far?

This brings me back full circle to conflict. If I can’t be open myself then I can not advise on open design – conflicts need to be explored, addressed and should be continually reflected but more importantly acted upon – change is continuous and the future therefore has to be open?


2. Crisis Camp Toronto blog (2009) available at:

3. Chan A (2009) Contingencies in Social Media,, available at: