In the basement of Seattle police headquarters, software developers, coders and technology experts spent Friday hobnobbing with Mayor Ed Murray, Chief Kathleen O’Toole, noshed on a free lunch and offered their expertise to a department struggling with a major software issue.
Police sponsored their first-ever “hackathon” as way to spur a discussion on how they can quickly edit in-car and body-camera videos sufficiently enough to protect the identities of witnesses and victims while adhering to the state’s Public Disclosure Act.
“We’re having a conversation about transparency and privacy,” police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said during an interview Friday. “How do the two intersect? How can the Seattle Police Department share terabytes of information we’re storing?”
The discussions Friday ranged from technical computing questions to concerns about state law and police procedure.
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Mike Wagers, the department’s chief operating officer, organized the tech-centric hackathon in hopes the department would get some ideas from the attendees, a mix of volunteers from Microsoft, private companies, University of Washington, Seattle Privacy Coalition and interested citizens. But, he said, it will take longer than a one-day meeting to come up with a solution.
Nonetheless, he called Friday’s event a success and said he was “blown away.”
“Options came out of it, which is what we look for. A different way to look for problems always work for us,” added police spokesman Officer Patrick Michaud.
Timothy A. Clemans, the 24-year-old software programmer who spurred the department to seek a solution after he submitted a staggering number of public disclosure requests for video and other information, called the event “amazing.”
Last month, Clemans submitted 30 public-disclosure requests to the department for details on every 911 dispatch; all the written reports they produce; and dash-cam videos and video collected from the soon-to-launch body-camera program.
He later dropped his request after Wagers agreed to meet with him to discuss how they can get him what he wants, including frequent releases of video clips from patrol-car dash cameras. The concept for Friday’s “hackathon” grew out of that meeting.
Over the past five years, Seattle police have collected more than 1.5 million videos, filling 364 terabytes of space. This information includes dash-cam video collected by in-car recording systems, 911 responses and interviews with victims, witnesses and suspects.
The material, like all public records, are subject to the Public Disclosure Act, which citizens use to compel agencies to release information, while subject to redactions of sensitive information or images.
With the Police Department’s body-camera pilot program kicking off in the department’s East Precinct on Friday, Seattle police say they are anxious to develop a fast, inexpensive way to go through the material and redact sensitive images.
Mary Perry, a lawyer for the Seattle Police Department, explained to the group the police need to redact images of juveniles as well as details about medical and mental-health conditions.
“If we can come up with technological solutions that would be very helpful,” Perry said.
Simon Winder, who runs Impressive Machines, a Seattle company focusing on robotics, machine learning and audio and image recognition, presented a concept for face-blurring software during the hackathon.
“There is some good modern face-detector software out there,” Winder told the group.
Winder said that working with police on the project creates a special challenge because videos are often blurry, filmed in the dark, taken at strange angles and in “weird lighting.” But, he said, he is intrigued by the challenge.
Winder complemented police for seeking help in Seattle’s tech community.
“Government agencies don’t jump out to me to be at the forefront of technology research,” he said.
Murray said he’d like to see other city agencies hold their own hackathons.
“There are so many ways we can yet to use technology,” Murray said. “We want to be the No. 1 digital city.”