On December 4, 2015, NYPD officers in New York’s 73 precinct received alerts on their mobile phones from a new high technology “shot-spotter” system: Eight shots had been fired near 409 Saratoga Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.
What happened next, according to an account from the local news channel NY1, showed how far technology had come as a policing tool.
The NYPD officers were able to make these arrests so quickly and easily through the help of a situational awareness (SA) system called DAS, for Domain Awareness System.
Being aware of your situation is not a new idea, of course. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a theory of leadership called situational leadership that argued for the use of different leadership approaches under different circumstances. Similarly, situational ethics, a philosophy dating back to the 19 century, even prescribes different moral standards for different circumstances.
It’s hard to disagree that people and organizations should vary their behaviors depending on the situation. But in order to do that effectively, they need to know what situation they are in. And that requires some sort of systematic attempt to gather and display information about the environment. Companies have been doing that for decades with their internal environments, but few have built systems to manage information about their external situations—opportunities, threats, competitors, and so forth.
Now, however, there is a budding movement to measure and monitor external situational awareness. Given the proliferation of sensors and signals in the world, it makes absolute sense to bring data on the external environment to one place for monitoring and analysis. Who wouldn’t want to know what is happening in the relevant domains of the outside world?
Well, thus far it appears that public sector organizations are the most interested. While they are not the only ones that need to understand their external situations, they seem to be the only ones developing situational awareness systems.
A group of Canadian government agencies, the city of Chicago, and the New York Police Department (NYPD) are three examples of SA from which private sector organizations can learn. One key lesson gleaned from their experiences is that the more targeted a system is, the better.
MASAS, the Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System, is run by the Canadian Public Safety Operations Organization (CanOps) and is intended to monitor and display information that is relevant to public safety. Thus it includes information about fires, earthquakes, bad weather, traffic problems, road outages, large crowds, shelter locations and status, border crossings, and so on.
The breadth of MASAS is noble, but it seems to limit its value. For example, as the CanOps website notes, because agencies are reticent to share sensitive information with other agencies, all the information shared was non-sensitive (i.e. not terribly useful).
A city is more focused than a country, and the third biggest U.S. city, Chicago, was one of the first to adopt an SA system back in 2012.