An unlucky thief's decision to pluck an iPhone out of the hands of an intern gave the world a sneak peek at a powerful new situational awareness tool for police departments.
How could he have known?
Dubbed the "unluckiest thief " by many in the media, 31-year-old Horatio Toure allegedly rode his bike by a young woman in San Francisco two weeks ago, gingerly plucked the iPhone she was holding out of her hands, and made a break for it.
Toure's critical error was his target choice: the woman he had stolen the iPhone from was an intern working for Covia Labs, a two-year-old California start up that was demonstrating its GPS tracking application to a client. Using the tracking software enabled on the iPhone, Covia Labs CEO David Kahn was able to tell a 9-1-1 operator the exact location of the thief as he peddled through San Francisco, which the operator then relayed to police. Ten minutes later, Toure was in police custody.
While the Web has been abuzz with this hilarious story of instant karma, not much attention has been paid to the technology that nabbed Toure.
Alert & Respond , the product demonstrated that day, offers "blue force tracking" as one of its features. A term coined by the U.S. military, Blue force tracking is a GPS-based system that allows troops to pinpoint the location and movement of friendly forces on a map. (In U.S. military parlance, blue is the color assigned to friendly forces and red the color of hostile forces.)
But GPS-tracking isn't all Alert & Respond can do, says Covia Lab's Spokesman Dave Fonkalsrud. Leveraging the company's own proprietary software platform, Alert & Respond enables the creation and deployment of what it calls "connected applications."
"These are programs that can run across diverse devices, regardless of operating system or hardware," Fonkalsrud said. "Our software operates on everything from an iPhone to some of the sophisticated drones and weapons systems used by the military."
This means that the iPhone running Alert & Respond and networked to other devices becomes an incredibly powerful situational awareness tool in the hands of a police officer. Kahn said the real game changer is that "an officer in the field is able to look at his cell phone and see where other officers are." Toure demonstrated this when he became an unintentional and unlikely participant in the demo. "This bicyclist was really playing the role of an officer when he took my phone," Kahn said.
Dispatchers and administrators can also use the software to instantly add new officers’ computers and mobile phones to its network. Using the San Francisco incident as an example, Kahn said he could have used a device running the software and sent the San Francisco Police Department an e-mail or a text message with a link. Clicking on the link would have granted them immediate access to see Toure's riding through the Bay City streets, as well as share messages, pictures, and locations with anyone else in the network.
Slated for release in October, Covia Labs' Alert & Respond will be marketed to police as a way to establish both interoperable communications and situational awareness in the palm of an officer's hand without new computer servers. This was the original goal of Kahn's when he started Covia Labs in 2008 after he saw police and firefighters pull out their cell phones to communicate with each other during an emergency when their walkie-talkies failed.
The company is currently negotiating a pilot program in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where each police officer will receive an iPhone with Covia Labs' software system running on their phones and command center computers. "The pilot will demonstrate that low-cost, popular, commercial mobile phones such as iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile phones, can be used to add blue force tracking and rich-media messaging to their communications capabilities," said Dan Illowsky, Covia Labs' chief technology officer.
Kahn believes such technology could be a game changer for how police and the public partner against crime. And Toure unwittingly helped prove it, he said: "If you give police timely and actionable information, they want to act on it."
♦ Photo by Covia Labs