Photos and videos uploaded into the cloud

Police get free multimedia platform, storage during emergencies

The Boston Police Department’s use of social media after the Boston Marathon bombing last year has been lauded as a game changer for police investigations. Now officials at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) see an opportunity to make such crowdsourcing even more effective.

After the bomb went off at the marathon, the  Boston Police Department asked the public to send pictures and video of the area around the finish line to help identify suspicious packages and people, said Cmdr. Scott Edson of the Technical Services Division at LASD.

“The public sent lots of pictures and videos, and it completely overwhelmed the Boston Police Department because they were not prepared for that amount of information,” he said.

A lack of storage and computing capacity is not uncommon at law enforcement agencies, Edson said, which is why LASD partnered with a commercial firm to set up a data warehouse that could be used during large-scale emergencies.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) offered its scalable cloud service, Edson added, and CitizenGlobal, a startup that already served as a storehouse for media images and video, agreed to set up a Large Emergency Event Digital Information Repository (LEEDIR) to be used by law enforcement agencies at no charge.

LEEDIR provides a central repository where photos and images can be collaboratively managed, organized and analyzed by one or multiple participating agencies. Copies of all files are automatically transcoded into a single format so they can be viewed through a media management Web interface, and the originals are stored in case they can be used as evidence.

Front-end services include automatic user reviewing and tracking of content for collaborative analysis, folder management, transcoding, downloading, user permissions, administrative commenting and notes, search, Global Positioning System and IP tracking, and file metadata extraction, according to the LEEDIR website. On the back end sits AWS.

Law enforcement agencies must meet two criteria before they can use LEEDIR: The event must involve multiple jurisdictions or disciplines, and it must have either at least 5,000 people in attendance or cover at least 5 square miles. Currently, there is no service for smaller events, although Edson said he expects one will evolve out of this.

To activate LEEDIR, an official visits, fills out a short questionnaire and follows up with a confirmation phone call. “Within just a few minutes, the activation can be up and running,” Edson said. “Once it’s activated, the cloud and all access to data that’s in the cloud is controlled by law enforcement.”

The agency is also responsible for getting word out about LEEDIR to the public, usually through the media.

People who want to submit photos or videos can go to the website or download a LEEDIR mobile app for free onto their Apple or Android devices and upload files from their computers, a webcam, Facebook, Google-Plus, Instagram or YouTube.

“It’s not designed for law enforcement officers to be used for evidence,” Edson said. “It’s designed for the public to send us videos and pictures that may help us.”

All data goes to the AWS cloud. Analysts sort and organize it by creating folders. In the case of the marathon bombing, police could have created a folder for images of people wearing white hats and another for images of abandoned backpacks. Then agents study each folder for clues.

One agency can run multiple activations simultaneously, and LEEDIR facilitates information sharing not only within a responding agency but among departments. For instance, if the FBI takes over a case, the local agency can set FBI officials up with access to its repository. 

At the end of the event, the agency can download the container of original evidence to a local environment and erase the rest or leave it all in the cloud and pay to put it in long-term storage, Edson said.

LASD went live with LEEDIR via a test on April 10 in which it asked law enforcement agencies nationwide to submit photos and videos.

“It performed as expected,” he said. “We did not get nearly as much content as we could have, we just didn’t get as much involvement as we’d hoped, but it definitely proved the point that the submissions work.”

On April 9, the Santa Barbara County, Calif., Sheriff’s Office became the first law enforcement agency to use LEEDIR. It’s asking for public input in its ongoing investigation of riots in Isla Vista the week before.

Edson expects the next versions of LEEDIR to add the ability to take data off hard drives. Organizations are also asking for an application for high-threat events – stadiums full of spectators, for example, Edson said.

“The return on investment, we hope, is that we will see less terrorism because if we have terrorist acts, there’s a good chance that the public is going to help us catch them,” he said.


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