CURFEW APP: Digitising business processes to track offenders
Published on 23 April 2021
When Queenslander Mark Cook from the Western Australia Police Force saw an issue on the front line, he knew he needed to step in and do something about it.
Recently the Rockhampton Regional Council SmartHub Business Manager, Elize Hattin, sat down with First Class Constable Mark Cook to ask him about digitising business processes. Mark Cook turned the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality on it’s head and created something that is having a positive impact on police force, the community, and the way we work in the justice system.
MAKING THE POLICE FORCE 'APPY'
Following a roll out of individual iPhone’s for each Western Australia Police Officer back in 2019, Mark Cook decided to embrace the tech change. It was this pivotable gesture that led Mark to revolutionise the process for front line Policemen and Policewomen and to change what was a very disjointed process, into something more streamlined and user friendly.
During the rollout, Mark recalls one of the Commissioned Officers stating that “you’re going to remember this day as the day that the digital change started to occur”; and he was definitely on the money.
Since late 2020, Mark has been working on creating an application to assist Police Officers to monitor that released offenders are meeting their parole conditions. Prior to this app development Police Officers would call on offenders who were on parole at random times of the day or night, to ensure that they were adhering to their parole conditions.
The issue was that the attending Officers had no way of knowing if another Officer had been and checked on the offender, just some 10 minutes earlier. So, this app solves that issue by keeping track of Officer visits and it also meant no more having to return to the station to spend 1 - 2 hours doing paperwork. Which was a frustrating task fraught with duplication, out dated business processes.
The business process frustration was uniform, but not many talked about it because ‘we’ve always done it this way’; but that didn’t make it feasible or beyond change. So, Mark went to work and over the past few months, with just his ideas and what he wanted to achieve, the journey began.
THE BIRTH OF AN APP
As Mark Cook will tell anyone, there is a serious thought process required when creating an App. Firstly you need to consider what the end result needs to achieve, what is the objective and why are you doing it.
As you begin tapping into these answers, it may feel like rocket science, however if you get the answers right, then you can expand your reach.
But how do you go about it?
NO CODING, NO WORRIES
Even though Mark is a self-confessed ‘nerd by hobby’ and studied web design prior to engaging in a career in the Police Force, he definitely doesn’t consider himself a programmer, coder, or a developer by any means.
“I knew a little about user interfaces and things, so I got to work on an application we could use out on the road that would totally change the way we did the process.
“that process was originally half in Microsoft Word, and half in another program, and not everyone was doing it the same and it was disgusting,” Mark admits.
Mark started to fix the problems right there.
He started by utilising no-code programs such as YouTube, Google, and Microsoft Power Platform to create the foundation and to work through his challenges.
Many non-tech savvy entrepreneurs feel like creating an app is well out of their reach, however Mark assures that this is simply not the case.
With YouTube and Google being free resources, there is a plethora of online experts available at our finger tips that are willing to guide us through the more challenging parts of our projects and show us step by step how it is done.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
As a Front-Line Officer, Mark was desperate to implement a solution for offender court and bail condition curfews. The WA Police Force were relying on an excel document that told them where to go and what the offenders bail/parole restrictions were.
Some visits meant that they were waking people up in the middle of the night and the fact that they didn’t know if a colleague was there 10 minutes beforehand was a waste of precious policing time, not to mention the inconvenience to families.
So, it was critical to Mark to ensure that the important work that he and his fellow Officers were doing, could be captured, and recorded on the road. Plus, they had all been given these powerful iPhones which are basically like a portable computer in your pocket, so Mark wanted to use them to his best advantage.
“So off I went and I thought, what can we do to improve this?,” Mark recalled.
His first focus was all about minimising the duplication of process and enhancing how quickly the team could achieve tasks without all of the administrative burden and having to go back to the station to tell people what had been done.
While Mark felt that he had the background knowledge on the policing task, as well as a good understanding of what he wanted the app to achieve, it wasn’t until he shared the app amongst 12 of his peers that the app became even better.
Then with the prototype complete, it was time to bravely share the app with the Digital Policing Division. Immediately the Inspector approached Mark and asked, “Can you come into our office for a week and show us what this is all about," Mark recounts.
With the app concept under development, Mark Cook knew he wanted to make a linear design. This ensured that his colleagues couldn’t get lost inside the app, as it had a very clear start and finish point.
The other critical component of the design was to make it look pretty. From the start the app had a nice user interface which Mark believes was a key ingredient to getting others to engage with the app so quickly.
“I think it made a lot of difference, because people straight away saw this thing with their eyes and before they even looked at what it did, they just went, "This looks great. We should make all our stuff look like this.", “ he said proudly.
Mark recommends others who are looking for app inspiration to check out Dribbble. Dribbble, with three b’s, has thousands of app designs available for you to have a look at to work out what design would suit your project the best.
Another important feature that Mark integrated into the app was the use of a dark mode between the hours of 7:00pm and 7:00am. The dark mode assisted Officers on night duty to use the app with ease during their shift.
POLISHING OFF A PROFESSIONAL GRADE APP
Then as the project took off, Mark used online courses to teach himself how to apply the more professional grade functionality.
“I'll talk directly about Power Apps now, and my thoughts on it. It is really, really sensational, with a what you see is what you get concept. You can bring in fields, and it's quite easy to navigate.
“I also liken it to Microsoft Excel. If you're a total beginner at Excel, the average user can get through and achieve the basics. Compared to someone who is quite advanced in Excel, who can do a whole lot of formulas, macros, and a whole lot of things in Excel that are quite complex.
“I'd say Power Apps is the same thing, whereas an average user can make something pretty basic. However, to get it to a point where it's usable as a professional grade application, can be challenging.
“However, that being said there are courses available and YouTube is just such a fantastic resource,” Mark encouraged.
Not everything was smooth sailing for our First Class Constable.
While Mark enjoyed the self-assuring positive feedback, “what I liked even better, was when someone ripped it to shreds and said, "This is rubbish" because then I could use that negative feedback to make it even better.
“This guy's only saying it's rubbish, because he can think of a better way to use this. so, I'm not getting upset and feel like this is putting me down,” he said.
Mark acknowledged that it was the negative feedback that pushed him further with his design and development and truly transformed the app.
Then there were other roadblocks that appeared that Mark hadn’t considered, such as affordability, security and database limitations. While this had Mark scratching his head as he was unsure about how to approach the issues, his Superintendent gave him some gently words of wisdom.
"Sometimes, we're trying to chop down a forest with an axe. And sometimes you've got to remove the axe from the forest in order to sharpen it; before you put it back." Mark shared.
These words of wisdom inspired Mark to take the time necessary to find suitable solutions and the end result was the official title ‘proof of concept’.
LETTING IT LOOSE IN THE FIELD
With the first proof of concept ready, it was time to let it loose in the field with 200 Officers across four stations trialling the app on a daily basis.
This also meant that all important internal feedback lines were opened, so that those in the field could share their thoughts with Mark and the team.
With the trial period still underway and the positive feedback rolling in, the app has swiftly validated the desire for it to be incorporated into the WA Police Forces digital business process.
So much so, that a briefing note has accompanied the app and it has been presented to the Police Commissioner with a recommendation for the app to be rolled out across the entire agency.
During the development phase Mark Cook was given permission to step away from his role as a General Duties Police Officer and sit alongside the Digital Policing Division to work on the app.
Then as the app trial grew from strength to strength and the call of duty beckoned, Mark was released from his secondment with the Digital Policing Division and returned to his usual role.
This transition wasn’t easy for Mark, as you could imagine. He had poured his heart, soul and hundreds of hours into creating a useful piece of policing mastery and now he had to return to his role as a user of his tech, rather than the developer of it.
Mark admitted that he has received no financial benefit from the app and “That was never the point, or the purpose.
“Not everything should be about monetary gain. There was definitely a feel-good attribute to it, and I got to improve a business process for thousands of officers, so why would I not want to do that, if I could?
“I think we're a little bit too motivated by money at times,” Mark suggested.
BUILT BY THE WORKER, FOR THE WORKER
Mark believes that the reason that his app has been embraced by the WA Police Force is because he started it with one goal in mind. To make his job easier.
As is the case with many businesses, it is the workers on the beat that understand the issues being faced on the front line and not necessarily the Supervisors and Managers of a company.
“maybe your direct supervision aren't even aware of it, so your higher-ups just have no idea. And it’s no fault of their own. I'm not saying that they're oblivious to it, because they don’t care,
“I'm just saying that it gets lost in translation, because the work is being completed, because you're doing your job. And you're left grumbling about it to your peers. But the fact is that this issue is not getting filtered up the chain,” Mark shared.
First Class Constable Mark Cook is an active Police Officer with the Western Australia Police Force. He is also the creator of an app that is being trialled within the force to assist with the monitoring of offenders released on parole.
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