Military Software Helps 1 City Track Gangs; Bitcoin's Possibilities; and Tech's Role in Charging by the Mile

Government and technology news you should know.
by | August 6, 2013
 

The military is working with local law enforcement to develop software that will help track gang networks. Software known as the Organizational, Relationship and Contact Analyzer (ORCA) was initially developed and used in military operations to identify networks of insurgents, and is now being used domestically. The domestic tests are a way for the military to hone the software for future wartime applications. But in the meantime, they'll provide police gang units with a valuable free tool that could eventually see a more widespread deployment.

Paulo Shakarian, teacher at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and primary investigator on the project, said that he and a group of students are now working with a major metropolitan police department in the U.S. that reached out to them for help with their city’s gang problem, and there's been a lot of interest from law enforcement agencies around the country.

According to Shakarian, the research behind ORCA is exploratory and doesn’t involve the use of classified data, so West Point has the ability to work relatively freely with police. Once the software is more polished, they may deploy it beyond their initial test bed.

ORCA analyzes the data collected to show law enforcement the relationships between various people and organizations. There are more than 1.4 million gang members in the U.S. today, according to the FBI. Making sense of how influential given members are and how gangs are organized is valuable intelligence for gang units trying to contain such crimes.

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John P. Sullivan, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department was among the law enforcement personnel who reached out to Shakarian after hearing about the software. L.A. County is not the department working to help develop ORCA, but any software tool that can help their officers work smarter on the streets would be useful and they’d like to try it, Sullivan said. Los Angeles’ gang violence is not as out of control as it once was, but there are still about 30,000 gang members and up to 150,000 individuals in the county who could be considered part of “that cultural milieu,” he said.

Software like ORCA is useful, Sullivan said, because law enforcement has limited resources. “It allows us to better understand organized criminal enterprises and gangs, understand their leadership structure, understand how they’re linked to other criminal enterprises. It would allow us to be more effective in understanding an organization so we know where the organization’s center of gravity is, we’d know where the links are, we’d know where the emerging and evolving threats are coming from.”

Has Bitcoin gone legit? The so-called “cryptocurrency” once best known for providing anonymity to those who buy drugs on black-market websites is suddenly the hottest new toy of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. The Bitcoin economy has risen into the billions of dollars, and now everyone wants in on the action.

The currency that was once celebrated as a counterculture, underground phenomenon has — dare we say — gone mainstream. So much so that government is now taking a closer look at Bitcoin, which is not backed by a nation and is available only digitally.

Some financial experts and Bitcoin enthusiasts say government intervention is necessary to legitimize and protect the currency. But others are worried that Bitcoin will lose its luster as the public sector gets involved.

A small e-government services firm called E-Gov Link has heard this dual sentiment more than most. When the Cincinnati-based company announced this spring that acceptance of Bitcoin payments was an option within the back-end software it provides to local governments, strongly worded opinions poured in immediately. There were mixed feelings about the idea that a local government could opt in on the new feature, which would accept Bitcoins from citizens when they pay for permits, parking tickets and other common services.

“People’s reactions ranged from those who said ‘this is the beginning of the end’ — real paranoia — to people who said, ‘This is great because the best way to prevent the federal government from outlawing Bitcoin is if local government uses it,’” said Jerry Felix, vice president of software development at E-Gov Link.

Oregon’s bold mileage tracking program: Can technology make it work? For more than a decade, Oregon has been perfecting technology that would allow the state to charge drivers for how many miles they drive rather than the current system that charges a 30-cent per gallon gas tax at the pump.

Governing recently detailed how Oregon could make this big policy switch in how roads and other transportation infrastructure are funded. A bill passed earlier this month by the Oregon state Senate would create a pilot of up to 5,000 users for the “pay-as-you-drive” funding mechanism; the legislation is awaiting Gov. John Kitzhaber’s signature.

The legislation is new, but Oregon’s hard look at the necessary technologies is not. For several years, Oregon officials have worried that the rise of fuel efficient vehicles will cut into the state’s gas tax revenues. As early as 2001, the state convened a task force for the purpose of studying alternative funding sources — everything from a tax on studded tires to tolls on new highways. The idea of a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee was also floated.

In 2006, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) began studying the pros and cons of technology that records drivers’ mileage. ODOT’s first attempted test involved nearly 300 vehicles during a 12-month span in 2006. The department developed an “in-vehicle device” that included a GPS receiving unit that measured mileage and determined when the vehicle was in Oregon and in the Portland area. Users were charged a mileage fee instead of a gas tax.

The 2006 pilot was deemed successful from a technology standpoint, but there were concerns. The in-car devices and pump receivers were expensive; ODOT would manage the program by itself; and some participants were concerned about the mandated usage of GPS.

“This whole new system is about choice and preference,” said James Whitty, manager of ODOT’s Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding.

More off-the-shelf choices are available now than before -- and they’re cheaper. Whitty envisions a future in which Oregon’s custom computer code that enables machine-to-machine communication could be uploaded into all types of consumer products that are already on the market, such as in-car telematics like OnStar or standalone GPS units or even a smartphone app. The devices would then wirelessly transmit the recorded miles driven to a tax payment processor of the user’s choice. The processor would then periodically send the user a tax bill (or if necessary, a reimbursement).

Oregon tried out these open standards in a small four-month pilot program that concluded in February. Forty-four users in Oregon, 21 in Washington state and 23 in Nevada were given several different options for reporting their mileage: a “basic” system installed via a port under the steering wheel that didn’t utilize GPS, but instead calculated miles driven by tracking fuel consumption; an “advanced” system that used GPS to track miles directly; a smartphone option that tracked mileage with vehicle location data; or payment of a flat road usage fee with no mileage calculation whatsoever.

Whitty said giving options proved to be viable. He also was encouraged by Nevada’s and Washington’s involvement, which might indicate that other states could someday adopt Oregon’s open platform. “It worked so easily and marvelously, and it’s flexible and scalable,” Whitty said.

But there are still many obstacles and unknowns to work through before Oregon’s Road Usage Charge Pilot program is ready for full-fledged statewide adoption.

There’s no guarantee that hardware vendors will want to support Oregon’s program. Another issue is that there are still kinks in some of the technology. Whitty said the smartphone option, for instance, “isn’t ready for prime time.” He said the smartphone app had to be custom made, and it didn’t track mileage as accurately as it would need to.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle Oregon faces in this effort is the battle to win the public’s support and mindshare. Communicating how the technology works to a statewide audience wouldn’t be easy, Whitty conceded. The job has been made harder by recent news headlines about the federal government’s secret and pervasive tracking of Americans’ online lives, and revelations that license plate reader data can be pieced together to follow someone’s every move.

Information for this newsletter was compiled from news reports published by Govtech.com.

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