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Man vs Machine


Last week Mayor Bill De Blasio released his $78+ billion budget for New York City that included some modest investments in technology for NYPD. A few media outlets, in search of a dramatic storyline, immediately decried, “De Blasio’s investing in technology instead of cops!” This ‘man versus machine’ narrative strikes me as a false “Sophie’s Choice”;  often present when the technology is not completely understood or its contribution to a shared mission has not been fully explained. No thoughtful person would ever present the argument of “patrol cars versus cops” or “radio dispatch systems versus cops”.  It is understood that these technologies are mission critical, ‘table stakes’ investments.  There are many examples in various trades where it is either impossible or very inefficient to perform a job without the aid of technology.  Appropriate technologies can complement and extend manpower; effectively making manpower more capable and productive in the pursuit of their mission.

The for-profit commercial enterprise world thrives on technology-enabled process innovations that drive competitive advantage. That competitive advantage is realized through reduced costs and/or expanded capabilities.  For example, computer aided design (CAD) was instrumental in the creation of the Boeing 777.  Successful applications of technology have one thing in common —they clearly identify processes that machines can enable or do better in order to focus manpower on higher-value, more impactful processes.

In the world of public safety, gun violence prevention is a mission critical objective and I believe that there are opportunities to re-invent our response to violent crime. I will stipulate that gun violence is “anytime a trigger puller illegally discharges their weapon independent of whether someone or something is hit”.  Reductions in gun violence are sourced through self-deterrence (the trigger puller’s choice) and/or external deterrence (society’s directive, through conviction and incarceration).

The operating thesis starts with the conviction that you cannot deter gun violence if you fail to respond to shootings, and you cannot respond to shootings if you have limited awareness of shootings. Our process flow is awareness, response then deterrence.

If that process flow is correct, the first order of business in gun violence prevention is to be made aware of gun violence (Actionable Intelligence).  This first step is a perfect application for a machine (in this case, the ShotSpotter® “machine”) that is able to detect, locate and alert on gunfire in real time with a scale and precision that no amount of manpower can replace.  Through that lens, ShotSpotter is a game changer.  It enables a process step that is not otherwise possible.  The data is clear; people do not call 911 on a scalable, precise and real-time basis.  In fact, they call less than 20% of the time and when they do it is neither precise nor real time.  Score:  Man 0 ... Machine 1.

Equally true is the limitation that the machine has in the response process step.  The machine can only detect, locate and alert on illegal gunfire.  In the ideal world, this enables an enhanced man-based response which, broadly defined, is not just tactical but also includes investigative, prosecutorial and predictive response. Until we can coax Governor Schwarzenegger back as Terminator, it’s Man 1 … Machine 1.

Targeted deterrence against the potential trigger puller is our specific contribution towards a reduction in gun crime.  The machine completely addresses the awareness step; enhances the response step and provides the focused deterrence that cannot possibly be achieved when a police department can only muster a response to 1 in 5 shootings. Targeted deterrence is sourced through a conscious decision on the part of the shooter not to pull the trigger.  This can be done for positive reasons e.g. “not interested in risky behavior” or negative reasons “fear of getting caught”.  If police are made more aware of gunfire events through the machine, respond more quickly and precisely, they change the calculus of getting caught.  Man 1 … Machine 2.

As police realize reductions in shootings through a more comprehensive and professional response, officers will have more available time to engage the public in meaningful ways that foster collaboration and trust.  Shootings -- once the norm -- will soon become threats to a new normal where acts of gun violence are anomalies worthy of outrage and a swift community/police response.  In the end, communities that maintain strong partnerships with police are responsible for the most significant and longest lasting deterrence against acts of violence.

We applaud Mayor DeBlasio and other thought leaders who seek to be smart on crime and leverage technology innovation to provide better service outcomes. 

When man harnesses machines, everybody wins.


May 12, 2015
By: Ralph A. Clark, President & CEO