Belmont Club

The Watchmen

One of the ironies of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman story is that while America has become obsessed with the evilness of neighborhood watches, the neighborhood watchman idea has gone global — in Africa, of all places. “Samsung, in partnership with Tracker, announced the Shout app today (15 March 2012) – an Android smartphone application that offers an SOS feature, crime search and hotspot notification.” The system effectively turns everyone into a neighborhood watchman.

The idea is simple. Since your smartphone knows where you are and can be programmed to summon help instantly, why not write an application that will report trouble and/or broadcast an SOS?  Smartphones can be programmed not only to summon emergency services but to send periodic updates on your safety status to authorized subscribers, such as your relatives, at selected waypoints or intervals.

The Shout app will be free to download from the Samsung Apps store from April 2012.

Its SOS feature allows users to call for help using a ‘panic button’ widget, which gives the user the option of requesting the following types of help:

  • Ambulance
  • Fire
  • Police

Upon selecting the relevant icon, the user will be asked if they are sure that they want to place this SOS call. The application then uses GPS to determine the nearest police station, fire station or hospital.

The Shout app will also include a mapping tool, which will plot crimes that were reported in the vicinity of the users’ current location. Users will be able to search for crimes by specifying the location, type or time-frame of the crime.

Once the crime observation data is looped back into the system it produces something like a crime weather map that passers by can steer around. Other African developers, speaking in an interview in BBC’s In the Balance, have described another app  in which the press of a panic button will alert a service that an armed robbery or assault is in taking at a given location and asking designated responders to swarm towards that location. (Go to the 9:25 mark on the audio). The developers, asked where they got the idea of focusing zombie-like swarms of persons on criminal acts came from answered, ‘the Arab Spring — and the British Spring’.

The Neighborhood Watch Responds to a Cell Phone SOS

Mobile data devices have turned billions of people into de facto nodes in a giant global network.  Applications developers will find ways to create useful products on that network infrastructure. In places where crime is a serious concern it is probably inevitable that crowd patterns will adjust themselves to anomalies that the network detects.

This will create a nightmare scenario for certain “civil liberties” lawyers. People — billions of people — will profile. They will act as de facto watchmen. In places like Africa, they will probably take it upon themselves to turn into instant posses.  There are dangers to that, but as long as the dangers are outweighed by the benefits, the Watchman trend is likely to be unstoppable in the places which Kipling once described as “East of Suez”.

Here’s the Shout marketing video.


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