Feature

Are tech startups the key to improving public safety?

Part of our series on the future of Main Street

Public safety is a universally important issue. Few things matter more to communities than staying safe: in cars, on foot, and in our homes.

It's natural to think public safety issues are problems for police officers and communities to solve, perhaps in conjunction with city hall. But often, that's not enough.

What if it's entrepreneurs who have the answers? That's exactly what the Washington, D.C., metro chief of police is wondering.

Cathy Lanier put out a call in January for tech startup solutions to public safety problems:

What are some innovative, cost-conscious, and effective strategies for preventing crime in those unique public spaces such as walking/biking trails? And how can we continue to pose additional public safety challenges on which we can work together with new organizations to find cutting-edge solutions to remain a growing, safe, and "smart city"? We're looking to startups for answers.

Lanier's idea sounds unconventional, and it is. But it also makes a lot of sense. Small start-ups driven by entrepreneurs unencumbered by allegiance to existing public safety procedures and infrastructure can potentially smartly disrupt this space just as they have other industries. And indeed, examples of the "cutting-edge solutions" Lanier seeks already exist.

Take these three Georgia teenagers who built Five-O, an app vaguely reminiscent of Yelp, where residents can rate cops they've interacted with. It's meant as a response to the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

In Philadelphia, an initiative called FastFWD pairs startups with the city to create specific public safety solutions. The resulting partnerships sound promising thus far:

  • Jail Education Solutions: They'll work with Philadelphia prisons to provide an educational tablet program to lower the recidivism rate.
  • Textizen: Along with Philadelphia RISE, they'll improve communications with people on parole by using SMS text messages.
  • Village Defense: This is a stab at a high-tech town watch, where neighbors can send each other alerts of suspicious activity.

The program is only two cycles in, so there are still a lot of kinks to work out, as Technical.ly notes. But the basic idea, that there's a fast track for pairing tech-minded entrepreneurs with city officials, is a powerful one.

It's not just cities and the public that stand to benefit from small start-up businesses focusing on safety. Business owners benefit, too, as public safety focused startups often form partnerships with a city or other public agency, which turns out to be a great way of acquiring resources. Money, yes, but also connections, useful data, and a wide audience of willing participants.

Working in tandem with city officials is also a good way to build a reputation as a civic-minded problem solver. In turn, businesses engaged socially in their communities tend to experience greater customer loyalty.

In 2015 and beyond, it's likely we'll see more contributions by entrepreneurs in the name of public safety. Some will work hand in hand with the cities they serve, while others will take a more ground-floor approach to building products meant to keep citizens safe. There's no silver bullet when it comes to keeping people safe, but intrepid small business owners can find success just by doing their part.

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